The stiffness of boards unwarped by rain and sunshine gripped Albey by the back of the neck and lower back, shackling him to the foot of the cabin’s fastened door. For just a moment – one blissful, fleeting moment – the Mad Poet had assumed he fell asleep holding watch over The Lodge, that he had drawn the shortest stick and was made to stand sentry until he stood no more while his comrades slept soundly inside, but that was only for a moment when the glare of the rising sun overwhelmed his every sense. He soon remembered the truth, and when he did, ‘twas not the sunlight that wrung tears from his eyes. There was a deep hole in his center, a crater at the very core of his being, and no amount of cold spring water could hope to fill it. Nor food, he was sure, but still he knew he must eat. Legs a’wobble he rose and, ignoring the pain of the throwing stones tumbling roughly down his thighs, Albey made for the treeline, arms clutched around his shivering body.
“I cannot go on like this,” he whined with rasp as his feet dragged runways behind him. “I have failed my comrades and soon I shall fail The Hillside Commons. I should have perished with The Lodge in fire and flames; a ‘man who refuses to go down with his ship… bah. I am no ‘man at all.”
Perhaps, or perhaps the coldness of the night had simply gotten to his head. Albey was sluggish in movement and in thought; surely a prey did not exist which would fall to his slow-moving hand. The sun would warm him, but too slowly for his liking; he needed to spark a fire, and for that he needed wood.
The chitinesque needles of the border trees scraped lines into the Mad Poet’s ashen clothing like the talons of a riverhawk piercing the water’s surface. They did not shove him, nor did his moccasined feet grab hold of rock nor log, but still Albey fell to the needled ground. As dire as his situation was, he was safe here in the ring of the denser trees, out of view of the denizens of the wood and of the cabin itself, that which mocked him most of all. Surely there was dried wood and tinder behind that locked door, among other rations which would lend relief to his struggle. Food preserved in salt, or even by magick perhaps, to shake the tremble from his muscles and bones; blades, proper and hilted, which would not fillet his hands were he to swing them too hard; clean clothing, mayhap woven of wool, and a bucket and board to wash it when it became dirtied. The possibilities were endless, but no possibilities at all so long as Albey was barred from entry.
He needed to get inside, and he would do it by sundown. Hunger be damned, thirst be forgotten; Albey was getting into that cabin.
“But how?” he asked the decrepit needles, making no move to get up. “I cannot pick the lock, not on my own. Perhaps Iuqon would have knowledge of the craft… or maybe he wouldn’t need to try, maybe Ram’rl would knock the door in with one swing of his mighty sledge.” A smile came to Albey’s face then, one which died slowly like a tree pillaged by termites. “But they’ve both passed beyond this corporeal world, never to return.”
Weakly the Mad Poet balled his fists, taking up great clumps of the brittle needles… needles which would likely burn were enough heat to engulf them. A thought which lurked far in the back of Abey’s tormented mind set down its roots then, blossoming into a glorious idea of newfound hope. The door may be locked, the keyhole forever empty of that which was made to fill it, but it commanded no air of permanence. Nothing does in Life, as taught to him by The Commons itself; all things fall eventually, all things have an end to which they are ultimately carried. Iuqon the Mage, Ram’rl the Unfallen, The Lodge, even the great Jericho Tower and the vast field of flowers from which it rose – all things come crashing down in the end, and in the searing way which those things went, so too should the door of the cabin in the clearing.
Albey would burn his way into shelter, and from there he would move forever forward.
First he gathered many armfuls of the fallen needles, some thick, most thin, and laid them down as a carpet over the ash in the firepit. It took many trips, and he dropped a fair amount to be crushed into his footprints, but the job got done. Next he searched for fallen sticks and dead twigs which still clung to their trees like a milkdrinker to its mother’s breast; though they poked and jabbed at his arms Albey hauled them in great bundles, piling the first atop the needles and the rest – however many there were, and a great many that was – in the dirt a fair distance from the pit. He dashed the twigs in the pit with a thin coating of needles, then set off to find a longer-lasting fuel that would not sizzle out before Albey got a chance to sit and warm his hands, which still shivered as if stricken by frost. Little was found when he first crossed through the dense ring of the needly trees, but within half a trek at most he had so many options as to be unsure of where to start. Much of the fallen wood was rotten – not such as the Rotting Ents were rotten, but rotten nonetheless – but he gathered it up regardless, separating the dry from the ruined in two piles in the clearing. The bottom of the sun’s crest had left the horizon when the Mad Poet could gather no more; there he laid in its glow, throwing clouds of dust into the air with every strained puff of breath. He was exhausted, yes, terribly so, but the labor had stirred the blood in his veins, had warmed him vaguely from the inside. Now it was time to bask in the real heat, that which sweat could never hope to cool.
Atop the carpeted twigs Albey built a small tower, one more akin to the log cabin looming behind him than to a certain other Tower, though in due time the resemblance would show. It was five sticks tall, Albey’s structure in the pit, a storehouse of sorts but one without a door; he filled it with twigs and needles and plenty of room for the air to flow, then capped it with broken flanks of branches from the dry pile. The rotten wood remained untouched, as it would until after he ate; surely it would burn, as all wood does, but he did not want the smoke of decay to flavor his upcoming meal. He wanted only the savory taste of fish flesh, seared white as to fall off the bones with ease, to grace his tongue when the time came to eat.
Wielding a smooth branch from which he peeled all the bark, Albey skewered the tower down the middle, driving the tip through the many levels, through the needles and the base of twigs and the needles beneath that, through the ashes of fires past and finally into the dirt which held it all. Palms pressed flat together with the top end of the stick poking through the eyehole between the bottom lengths of his thumbs, Albey slid one hand forward and one hand back, then reversed, then reversed again. Though his muscles ached and begged him to relent, he picked up speed as his focus tightened around his goal; his muscles may have burned then, and burn miserably they did, but the fire would burn brighter and hotter than the lowly pain could even fathom. He laughed to himself, barked out an arid guffaw; the seven astral runes of Existence seemed to have forgotten one cosmic truth of reality, one primal facet as inescapable as Death itself, for there was no symbol for pain, no day of the strate dedicated to that which undertones every decision a ‘man can possibly make: the pain of outcomes he would never see, the clearings at the end of paths he would never walk. Then again, there was no rune for joy either, for the satisfaction which filled Albey’s soul as friction led to a spark and a spark led to flames and smoke began to rise from the firepit in great meaty billows. Only when the budding blaze began to burn his hands did he stop spinning the stick and fall back into the dirt, laughing in defiance at the infinite blue sky, or rather what, in the mind of the Mad Poet, twisted by grief and starvation as it was, that empty void represented.
“You have not bested me yet, Gobon,” Albey shouted, almost as if to challenge ka. “You are powerful indeed, sorcerer, your influence writhes in shadows everywhere and nowhere, and you sent me here to die. But I shall not falter. I shall not be overcome by the piteous likes of you. You claimed we weren’t so different, you and I, and in some ways that may be true.” He rose into a sit then, lifted only by his core. “But you are alone in this Life, a barren isle unto yourself, while I am simply stuck on an island, and not by my own doing.”
The thought of fish, plump and juicy a’swim in the river which held the Mad Poet’s island, brought drool to the cusp of his lips. The fire was burning strong, the tower of sticks licked black by kinky flames. He rose to his feet then, brushed the dust off the seat of his pants, and followed the footsteps he made yesterday when he first ventured out into the wood. Albey would eat by high noon.
This has been the first subchapter of the second chapter of The Face of Fear, a novel about bigfoot written by the writer in Untitled Bigfoot Project. Here is everything you need to know about it:
I’ve written a few other books, too. Click here to see the list.
The Hillside Commons has a Facebook page. Here’s that.
If you’re there, hypothetical reader, thank you for being there. From this day on, we move forever forward~