So this is my first time writing dialogue, which is still pretty sparse at the end. I legitimately had to consult google on the correct way to format. It was more than a little sad. But researching the basics aside, this started to really flow once I got into the meatier bits of it. Hopefully there is some suspense building as we reach the end, and I am going to see if I can wrap this up with just one more chapter.
The Long Journey Home
The last hour of Tom’s life had been uneventful, if not entirely peaceful. The atmosphere in the forest was unsettled. The abrupt sounds that echoed between the trees. The erratic tracks of animal movement he found in the brush. All spoke of an uneasiness, and Tom felt it from his toes all the way up to the hairs on the back of his neck. He was never one to possess an active imagination. He always held firmly to reality, and believed himself to be capable through all things. Tom’s ability to maintain control in the most hectic of circumstances had been the only thing that had seen him alive through his many years as a Huntsman. Capability was no longer his defining trait, and coping with this was something Tom did very poorly.
Thomas Gladring was no longer a hunter. His body was not capable of taking on challenges and overcoming obstacles. It was capable of frowning and of speaking in disapproving tones. It had seen long years, and hard work, and the confidence he once had was cracking. He was a pane of glass that had acquired a chip, and with every day that passed the chip continued to fracture. It grew deeper and longer, like the spreading tendrils of a vine, poised to shatter at the slightest breeze. With tales of eaten children and a missing Huntsmaster in his head, Tom was acutely aware of his frailty. He was hurrying along the road as swiftly as he could manage, eager to accomplish his task before the phantoms in his head could burst from the shadows. Breathing heavily and nose leaking from exertion, Tom approached a rapidly receding treeline. He left the shade of the trees and emerged into the mouth of a wide clearing.
The towering trees of the forest gave way to an expansive glade of emerald green grass. In the center of the clearing was a crystal blue lake, framed on three sides by a lush halo of purple flowers. The north side of the lake was crowned with a sheer rock wall that rose proudly for twenty feet to its peak. Crisp mountain water flowed swiftly over the precipice, plunging into the lake below with a soft splash. Tom stood in the long grass with eyes closed tightly, the bright afternoon sun feeling harsh after the shade of the trees. His posture alternated restlessly between an upright stretch and an exhausted hunch.
What, in the daftness of my fading mind, was I thinking? Dragging my floppy rump out half way to no place? Folks twenty years my junior spend afternoons on porches, gettin’ fat and bouncin’ babes on their knees…lazy wretches.
Tom gave himself the necessary moments to collect himself before taking in the scenery around him. This place took his breath away when he first visited it. As it was, Tom hadn’t much breath to take. His boots shuffled through the grass, moving towards the water’s edge. All remained as it had been a year ago. Just as beautiful and magnificent. The same today as when he first brought Mary to share it with him. The purple blossoms he was hunting brushed against his pant legs as Tom drew closer to the water. He stopped when the toes of his boots sank into the damp shore of the lake. He removed his pack and dropped it smartly to the ground, creating a crater of smashed flowers. Relying as always on his staff, Tom leaned on it slowly as he dropped to first one knee, then the other, inching his body to the ground. He winced and groaned, but eventually found himself staying steadily upright. With his backside resting on a bed of flowers and soft dirt, Tom was as comfortable as he could manage.
He pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, hoping to shield his eyes from the brightness of the spring afternoon. It was a few hours past midday, and what had always been a two hour hike at a leisurely pace was now a four hour journey that threatened to pull his body apart. Tom reached out and took a handful of flower stems in each hand and gave a fierce tug. He placed the bushels on his lap and fetched a cord of string from his pack. With gentle movements, he cleaned the stems of dirt and roots, bound them together with the cord, and held in his hands a beautiful bouquet. With another length of string, Tom tied the bundle of flowers to one strap of his pack.
Blighted errand completed, He thought, with a satisfied sigh. Well, just about completed, anyway.
With the babble of the waterfall in his ears and the perfume of flowers in his nose, Tom felt safe and at ease, his concerns along the lake road were all but forgotten. He stretched his limbs out, already feeling soreness creep into his muscles.
A quick rest’s all I can spare. Moving fast as a child toddlin’ on all fours all day, I’ll be lucky to make it outta’ here with the sun in the sky.
Tom closed his eyes and let the sounds of the water soothe him. He and Mary used to lay here together. Sunlight kissing their faces. Clouds lazily sailing along overhead. Embarrassing giggles filling the air as they lounged in the deep grass. Tom didn’t allow Mary to accompany him into the forest, but for the lake he made an exception. Mary took full advantage of the freedom, and would swim for hours in the cool water. Tom permitted himself a half-smile as he sat on the shore, remembering those times. The couple had spent entire nights on blankets of flowers, calling the bright stars above by names they had decided to one day use for their children. He could picture her climbing up to the top of the waterfall. She had never looked more beautiful than that, standing proud on the edge of the rocks, queen of the forest lake. Her long hair prancing loosely behind her in the breeze. Her entire figure glowing in the sun. She would stare at the northern mountains from up there, wishing nothing more than to travel the entire five lands with Tom. Hoping to one day see every wonder this world contained.
She had collapsed on a day like that.
Tom and Mary strolled happily away from the lake, taking the path home. Their fingers intertwined. His thumb gently rubbing circles on the back of her small hand. Arms swinging forward and back. He looked at her eyes, thankful for the beautiful woman who loved something in him. Her black pupils were large, as they would be in darkness. Something in the pit of his stomach clenched.
“All okay, Mare?”
She looked confused, features twisting, mouth half open. She began to shake her head when her legs gave out. He wrapped his arm around her, easing her to the ground.
“What’s happened? You alright?” Tom’s voice was low and calm. His thoughts were frantic. He was scared.
Her eyes seemed to disappear into the back of her head as the lids closed over them. Tom stretched her legs out in front of her and bundled his pack under her head. Minutes pass before Mary finally wakes. Tom tries to carry her home, but she stubbornly refuses. Mary thinks she is alright. That whatever it was had passed.
“I’m fine, you old midwife. Too much sun and adventure.” She smiles at him, trying in vain to comfort her husband and brush off the episode.
Days later and she has been sick frequently. Her expression appears joyful as she sees Tom’s excitement. He is hoping for news of a pregnancy. Mary hides her feelings, clenching her teeth for hours without end, fighting the pain in her head. It seems constant.
Time passes and her next month comes. There is no child growing in her belly. Tom continues to hope, and to smile.
Nausea plagues her for weeks before she shares her state with her husband. Tom stands before the Town Council, the Doctor, and every midwife he can find. Each of them shakes their head regretfully.
Mary has trouble speaking. Tom’s conversations with her become confused as she struggles to find words. She can’t focus. A handful of hours into every day and her body begins to fail.
A winter passes.
Tom travels to the Land of Sand, gone for weeks. He has heard stories. The Sages of Sand work miracles with plants and ointments. He is in desperate need of a miracle. Tom gives every earthly wealth he has to the Sages. They give him a pouch of colorful herbs and a container of pungent oil. He mixes ingredients and applies the stinking muck to her chest. No change comes.
Fury begins to define him. He gave all he had on a whimsical hope. Now he has nothing but an ailing wife and no path of salvation.
Mary comforts him. She smiles and touches his hand. She loves him, she says. Everything will be alright.
He feels useless and afraid. Tom plunges heedlessly into the forest for days at a time, retreating to the only place he feels in control. He hunts. He brings food home. He doesn’t smile anymore.
The time comes when Mary is unable to care for herself. Tom stays with her, but wishes for nothing more than a beast he can plunge a knife into, hating this invisible demon that is taking Mary’s life away.
Deep lines form on the skin of his young face. His frown is constant. All joy is gone as he watches his queen deteriorate.
A second winter passes. Tom wishes to see Mary smile again. He ventures out into the woods. Mary wakes to the smell of fresh flowers. A glorious bouquet graces her bedside. He sits next to her and holds her hand. Half her face is unmoving and expressionless. The other half curves into a delicate smile. For your birthday, Mare, he explains. You will always have these for your birthday. She cherishes the gesture, glad to see him close to her.
Less than a month later and Tom is digging a hole. Tears fall on fresh dirt. People surround him, but their words are lost in the fog of his despair. Darkness fills the house of Thomas Gladring.
Tom’s experience showed him how useless he was as a husband. His vow to care for her, to protect and shelter her, seemed a farce. A terribly wicked jest played on him by fate, or God, or destiny, or whatever else dictated the course of a man’s life. Tom’s time with Mary felt a cruel, tragic sort of blessing. He cherished the memories they had made, but he longed to change things. To take her place. It was his duty to sacrifice. He should have done more. He didn’t try hard enough. But he was relieved. He couldn’t have handled another year of watching her waste away. Seeing her body lose all function. Watching her spirit fade. He was thankful for an end to the madness that came from seeing the one thing he loved slip away from him.
“You pathetic, coward of a man.”
Tom’s face went slack as his wife slowly rose from beneath the surface of the water.
“You make me sick.” The words explode from her mouth like venom. “How dare you come to this place.”
“I came for your flowers. I promised you! Don’t you remember?”
Her brow was drawn down, face forming a vicious snarl. Tom fumbled for the bundle of flowers at his side, eager to prove the fulfillment of his vow.
“You arrogant oaf. You think you honor me? That this disgusting penance could free you from your wrongs? How many nights did I spend scared, and alone with my sickness? Horrified of the unknown pestilence inside me?” The surface of the water vibrated as the sounds of her booming voice filled the air.
She walked forward, emerging from the water. Chin raised high, glaring down at him. Tom scrambled backwards, terrified of the look in her eyes.
“You could have helped me!” She was screaming. “You could have saved me!”
Tom began sobbing. He held his hands up in front of his face, shielding himself from her terrible rage. “I did all I could,” he cried softly. “I wish it’d been me. You would’ve survived without me. You were so strong, Mare.”
Her eyes pierced into his like she was looking into Tom’s soul, and was disappointed in what she found. She slowly bent down and picked up his staff.
“Then come to me, you sad man. Let me finally correct the mistake that fate made.”
Mary raised the staff high over her head. Tom watched the drops of water fall from her dress as she raised her arms. Her eyes burned with madness. Mary’s lips pulled back into a mad grin. Her teeth were bared, the tips jagged and broken to sharp points. Strands of wet spittle were carried from her mouth as her shriek shattered into his ears. The staff thundered towards him. He waited for the end.
His eyes snapped open. Mary’s roar continued to echo through the air as he blinked, adjusting to the light of dusk in the sky. The surface of the lake was still. The sky was painted in brilliant orange and purple hues.
Fallin’ asleep like a fool’s apprentice. I deserve to get eaten out here.
The roar broke into the air once again and Tom clambered to his feet. The sound came from the north, near the stream above the waterfall. Tom quickly picked up his pack and jerked his arms into the straps. Checking that the bouquet was securely hanging at his side, Tom stooped to retrieve his staff from beneath the tall flowers. His body resisted his every movement, stiff as it was from laying on the ground, unmoving for hours.
Gotta be a Volbear up there above the lake. If I can get off into the trees I’ll be away before it can find a path south.
Tom forced his body into an awkward canter, half jog, half limp, toward the path out of the clearing. The roar echoed into the air again.
Suddenly a voice shouted, “Run, boy! Behind me!”
Tom hesitated, turning around to face the wall of rock. He recognized Henry Shanks’ voice. Tom took a few hesitant steps back towards the lake before he stopped himself. He was not prepared to shout and draw attention to himself. He certainly wasn’t fit to scale twenty feet up a rock wall. There was nothing he could do except get away.
As he stood weighing his options, Tom heard loud splashes rapidly approaching down the stream. Darkness was quickly following the setting of the sun and Tom could barely make out the small figure that was stumbling through the water. The dark form of a boy became clearer as it drew closer to the waterfall. The water was flowing earnestly and the boy tripped, disappearing from Tom’s sight. A moment later he saw the dark blob of Samuel Haster’s body float over the edge of the rocks, and watched as it tumbled into the darkness of the lake below.