‘So?’ said Thomas, surveying the spot with his eyes, ‘This is the bloody forest, eh?’
A stream flowed nearby, a small one, its breadth only a few metres. The rustling water appeared clean; thirsty, Charles scooped and cupped a couple of handfuls into his mouth. It certainly tasted better than the water they provided at Nascat.
‘It ought to be,’ he said, ‘but where is the hill?’ The trees weren’t that tall, but they were so thick in numbers everywhere, they did not permit a good view of any direction.
‘I can climb a tree and see,’ Thomas offered.
‘Yes, do it,’ said Aunt, ‘we need to get to the hill as fast as we can.’
Thomas was an expert in climbing trees, way agile than Charles. He quickly got on top of one, while Charles and Aunt waited below, watching.
‘I see it,’ he said, flinging his arm forward, ‘and good news! We’ll have that stream with us; it flows straight to the hill and then curves.’
After Thomas carefully descended down, Aunt said,
‘Come on, now.’ And they began their journey.
The Dwarfy Dwarf castle was dark as always, not that light was scant, only its inhabitants hated the name of it and, anyhow, they did not require it at all. What more, its mistress, Mai Canniola—three witches who had found residence in one single body—had made sure her castle was wholly light-proof by using her strongest of light repelling spells, and also strictly disapproved of her dear Assurs going out of the castle during day.
Today, she was seated on her majestic Throne, as always, and at her easiest, scratching her misty yellow teeth with her misty deformed nails. In front of her was a golden stool on which a purple cat sat, licking his paws to clean.
‘Is she replaced?’ Mai Canniola asked the purple one, who purred.
‘Yes, and quit successfully indeed.’
‘So, we don’t need her any longer, do we? The Assurs can have a feast.’ The Assurs cheered, howling happily in appreciation. A smile crept onto Canniola’s lips; the Assurs, half men half bugs, and her ever-loyal slaves, she liked them rewarded once in a while or two, and seeing the savagery of their merry making.
‘No,’ said the purple one, taut, quietening the Assurs all at once, ‘We don’t know what use we may need her for and when. Mariola will do her job well, there is no doubt to that, but it cannot be said at what turn we shall happen to require the real one. At best, we keep her in a place which is not in a stone’s throw, so that we are not tempted to kill her.’
‘Gullop?’ said Mai canniola, her smile gone, knowing that the purple one’s we solely meant she and her Assurs, ‘the barren rock of an island; what do you say?’
‘Yes, that can suffice,’ he said and blew his nose, ‘...well, it’s time I get involved as well.’
Canniola nodded, thoughtfully.
‘So long, then,’ said the purple one and with a flick, the stool was empty.’
‘You’ll have to do with the usual game,’ Canniola told the Assurs, ’... Or hey! Lexon and his men, they are useless now, hunt for them at night!’ The Assurs, whose faces had fallen, were revived and delighted. Mai Canniola divided herself into three, and started chatting with her ‘selves’.
As Charles, Thomas and Aunt Isabella irksomely waddled through the forest, splashing stream water that flowed beneath their feet, they soon found how bizarre Tropagia was. From three inches big army ants, their lines they were careful not to disturb, to mobile plants, the flowers of which kept snapping at flies, the environment felt exceptionally alien to them.
They avoided consuming the strange looking unfamiliar fruits showing up every few metres. They had seen none of the like back at home, and although Garvinson’s spirit had told them about the edibility of the lighter coloured ones, they feared at selecting the wrong fruit by mistake.
But, ultimately, by noon, hunger and tire had the better of them. Walking for so long, their legs had grown sore and leady. Two kilometres of forest still lay between them and the hill, however, wearied, they were forced to give into some rest; they plucked three of the apple shaped grey fruits, and, prior to eating, hoped these were not going to be their last fruits.
‘It’s not that bad,’ said Thomas, as he munched at his fruit.
Charles took a bite of his own.
‘It tastes both like an apple and a guava at the same time, doesn’t it?’
‘Hmmm,’ said Thomas, finishing and throwing away the leftover, ‘I think I’ll get another one.
He rose and plucked another one of the grey fruits from the lower branches of the tree.
Aunt Isabella exhaled slowly.
‘I pray we can get to the hill within a couple of hours. I wonder if I’ll manage it though, walking is such a task!’
Thomas chewed on,
‘And that Garvinson said he’d get us as close to the axe hill as possible!’
‘He must have tried his best,’ said Aunt, when abruptly, she turned vigilant, ‘—hey, do you hear that?’
‘What?’ Charles and Thomas asked.
‘Someone’s crying, can’t you hear that?’
They strained their ears. Charles heard a faint continuous weeping noise. Amongst the many sounds that the forest was ever making, it was difficult, but it existed none the less.
‘Yes,’ said Charles, ‘Someone’s crying!’
‘We are not alone here for sure,’ said Aunt, ‘I say we get moving; I feel crept!’
‘Shouldn't we investigate a bit?’ said Thomas.
‘Investigate?’ said Aunt, ‘Are you mad?’
‘He said we won’t find demons when it’s still day? What if there is a person there who needs help?’
‘People don’t come to Tropagia for leisure,’ mocked Aunt Isabella.
‘A tad of looking around won’t harm, will it?’ Thomas pressed on.
‘It won’t actually,’ said Charles, more to Aunt than to Thomas. He wanted to find out who was crying. He had a feeling somebody was really in need of help.
‘Okay,’ said Aunt, finally persuaded, ‘let’s see, but this can get wrong.’
Listening hard, they moved into the woods, though careful not to venture too far from the stream, peering through the trees, in search for the weeping fellow.
Not long before, they found him: a young boy, younger than Thomas by a slight, slumped at the foot of a tree, his clothes torn and nasty gashes spread over his body.
‘Whoa!’ said Thomas, ‘Who’re you?’
The boy wheezed as he saw them—he had been gazing down and hadn’t realised their arrival up till now. His eyes bulged, and terror paralysed him. He was able to mutter only two shivering words.
‘Hey, hey,’ said Charles, striding over,’ relax, relax. What happened to you? Why are you here?’
A cute little striped blue kitten appeared from a bush and crept onto the boy’s lap, who remained stiff and fearful.
Charles crouched next to him.
‘Are you alright, boy?’
‘Please...don’t...’ he muttered again.
‘He seems to have suffered a lot,’ Aunt said, she and Thomas walking over as well.
‘How did he get to this heck jungle?’ said Thomas.
A sob burst from the boy.
‘You...you are going to harm me...aren’t you?’
‘No,’ said Charles kindly,’ nobody’s going to harm you, you’re totally safe, cheer up.’
‘He...he brought me here and left me to die...the r-rascal.’
‘Who?’ Charles asked.
‘M-My uncle...he brought me here...he wants all our property.’
‘Your uncle?’ Thomas said, big eyed.
‘Yes,’ the boy replied, sniffing and trying to control his tears, but failing,’ he killed my parents...and didn’t even spare my older brother...he made it look like I killed them and the stupid village elders took his word, without thinking I could never do such a thing...because everyone feared him.’
‘That’s evil,’ said Aunt, astonishment glued to her face at the uncle’s act,’ what kind of an uncle does something like that!’
‘He is my father’s step-brother...he always hated our family with all despise...he killed everyone!’ The boy broke into loud wails.
‘Man!’ said Charles. He felt pity towards the poor soul.
‘Hey,’ he placed a consoling hand on his shoulder, ‘calm down.’
An angry wave rippled Aunt’s features,
‘His uncle is a brute; he can’t do this to such a little boy!’
The cat purred quietly, evidently the boy’s pet, who, even as he sobbed away, kept caressing it tenderly. The boy was a decent one, if not for his placid condition of present. Despite marks of recent ill-treatment, his face still told of a cared-for life prior to that.
‘How far is your village from here?’ Charles said to him.
‘I don’t know,’ he replied, taking sharp breathes,’ they blindfolded me...but, it took about a week.’
Charles was quizzical,
‘Took a week?’ he said,’ I mean, this forest is so dangerous, you didn’t have any trouble from the wild animals and demons?’
‘No...my uncle was the only demon for me.’
‘Hmmm,’ said Charles, ‘anyway, your village sure isn’t near.’
It took a while for the boy to quieten down. His tears weren’t point blank; the cause was too strong; anyone was meant to dissolve under the situation he was in.
‘What do we do with him?’ Charles asked of Aunt Isabella, ‘It would be inhuman to leave him alone and go.’
Aunt did not appear to think there was any validity in the question,
‘Why, of course,’ she said, ’we have to take him along, what else?’
Charles nodded, approving very much. The boy’s tears had ceased by now, he was staring melancholy at his cat.
‘Charles asked him his name.
‘Henry,’ he replied, his eyes moving up to Charles.
‘Will you come with us?’
‘Yes,’ said Henry,’ I will...I have nowhere to go.’
‘Alright then,’ said Charles, to everyone this time,’ let’s get back on track, we need to get to the hill before night.’
They returned to the stream and after feeding Henry few of the apple-shaped grey fruits, so that to replenish his energy, continued on the trek.
They had advanced only a short distance, when suddenly Thomas said of spotting something, plausibly an animal, moving amidst the bushes and shrubs.
‘It can be anything,’ said Charles, alarm in each word,’ come fast! Garvinson only said demons won’t be around during daytime, he didn’t tell anything about wild animals.’
Barely had he spoken, a great beast jumped in front of them from the woods. The most fearsome of beasts this was, gigantic in size and odd could be one of the scant words for its description. Its head resembles a wolf’s alright, just way bigger, but it had a hump on its back like an ox’s, and three clawed scaled feet as the ones birds had, oversized birds that is to say.
All of them made an instinctive dash in the opposite direction, instantly, terrorised to their cores.
‘Run, run, run!’ Charles shouted, racing faster than ever.
‘Look!’ Aunt Isabella shrieked. With a bound, the fiend had taken to the air and rapidly crossed them overhead. Without a second’s ado, it was before them.
‘AARRHG!’ They nearly crashed against the animal from the inertia of their run.
The hulking one roared, a roar so loud and shaking, they almost seemed to be off-thrown their feet.
They rushed, but at the very moment, there was a series of ‘pops’, like bubbles bursting, and there, through sheer magic, appeared by the beast a man of the most peculiarity, wearing a strange green gown, face tattoo-adorned, and leisurely keeping his arm on the beast’s hump.
‘Stop, everybody, stop. Please do,’ he said in a fairly dramatic tone, his voice sounding both like an old man’s and a young boy’s at the same time.
‘Who are you?’ Charles asked, sarcastic, halting, and raising his hands to signal the others as well. This man apparently knew magic and had something to do with the wolf-headed animal: Otherwise, it would be feasting on him as of now.
‘Everybody ‘round here calls me Lysando, ‘cause ye know what? I am Lysando!’ He smiled wide and hilarious, his lips stretching the breadth of his face.
Charles narrowed his eyes at the wolf-animal.
‘And that beast?’
‘Oh’, said Lysando, patting the beast ever so akin to an old pal,’ He’s the king of my Bherias and my best friend; name’s Gyepik.’
Charles wondered of the word ‘friend’ was applicable in this case,
‘It nearly ate us,’ Thomas gritted his teeth angrily.
‘Nay,’ said Lysando, gay, ‘he was simply playin’, that’s all.’
‘Playing?’ said Aunt Isabella, breathing heavily, raising a brow.
‘Yeah, ‘course; I understand ye people got a little bit frightened, but the thing is—what are ye doin’ in my area? Will ye explain please?’
‘Your area?’ Charles asked.
‘Yeah, ‘course,’ said Lysando. ‘It’s my area, definitely not yours, I assume?—or hey,’ he acquired a warning note,’ are ye Canniola’s Assurs disguised as ordinary folks? In that case, I won’t step from assaultin’ ye—though I’m sceptic an Assurs tongue can ever form a word, and besides they rarely are seen at this time of the day—which ‘course lends me in a dilemma as of your identity, since ye speak so well.’
‘Hey, listen,’ said Charles, not understanding a word Lysando was blabbing. ‘We don’t know what you’re speaking, okay? So—‘
‘So what?’ said Lysando, ‘Tell me your identity first.’
‘You’ve got nothing to do with that,’ said Aunt, cross.
Lysando shook a finger delicately,
‘I’ve got everythin’ to do with that. May I remind ye, this is my area.’
‘Shut it up,’ said Aunt, ‘first you let this frightening animal loose on us and—‘
‘He was playin’ I have told ye. Why did ye enter my area in the first place?’
‘Alright,’ Aunt Isabella clasped her hands together at Lysando, fed up. ‘Please excuse us; we are leaving your area. Come on, let’s get away from here, he irritates me.’
As they were to go, Lysando announced,
‘Wait and tell me who ye people are, or else, I’ll actually let Gyepik on ye.’
‘Urgh!’ Aunt Isabella said in exasperation.
Charles turned decisively at Lysando.
‘See,’ he told him, ‘we were just passing this place when we heard this boy here crying,’ he gestured towards Henry,’ and stopped to have a look. We decided to take him with us, and were continuing on our way, when that monster of yours jumped in front of us and attacked us. And then, you appeared—so, that’s it, there’s nothing else to tell.’
Lysando inflated his mouth with air, and thought for a moment.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Charles Bennet.’ He lent Lysando an Is-this-over-man? look.
‘Charles Bennet,’ Lysando echoed, genuinely reminiscent for some reasons,’...That recalls some old times to me.’
‘Can we go now?’ said Thomas, folding his arms.
‘Wait,’ said Lysando, talking to Charles,’...Bennet...Um, do ye know of Albert Bennet, er, the scientist?’
A strange itch came underneath Charles skin. What was Lysando getting to? He wondered. It was beyond doubt he was referring to his grandfather.
‘The one who led an expedition to this forest?’
‘Exactly,’ said Lysando, an eager expression dressing his tattooed face.
Charles glanced at the others; Aunt and Thomas were gaping; Henry, however, was confused. A prickling cluster of seconds elapsed before he slowly spoke,
‘He was my Grandfather.’
Lysando’s jaw dropped, and his eyes came to the verge of popping out.
‘Don't ye move,’ he said in a swift breath, and became one with the air in a ‘pop’.
The wolf-animal remained though, staring at them, eyes fixed and unblinking.
‘Why do all these magic people know grandpa? Thomas wondered out loud.
‘That Thomas,’ said Aunt, ‘only you grandfather himself would know...Anyhow, let’s not stay here, that monster is gazing too hungrily at us, and we need to get to the hill, remember?’
‘Let’s move,’ said Charles. ‘We don’t want to provoke it, do we?’
With extreme slowness they began to move backwards, one step at a time. But the wolf-animal was not to be deceived easily; before long, it became aware of the plan they were up to.
It snarled at them, and coming over, took to circling around them, ready to pounce the moment that pleased it.
All afraid, they considered it wiser to stay still, until the tattooed man returned.
And it took him a long time, made so, undisputedly, by the beast’s ever rigid glare on them, even if it were not more than a trifle of minutes in reality.
And Lysando did not reappear alone. He brought some dozen men with himself, whose height did not surpass half of a normal human’s. Height wasn’t, however, their only peculiarity; the bunch of them had a tail each, giving them an appearance of humanised monkeys.
‘Which of them is he?’ one of the short men said, who carried a sword (length of a regular knife) in a sheath, clearly meaning Charles’ group by ‘them’.
Lysando pointed at Charles.
‘And who are the others?’
‘Who are they?’ Lysando asked Charles, hurriedly, indicating Thomas, Aunt and Henry.
‘They are my Aunt, cousin and the boy we found,’ Charles replied.
The short man stepped forward. It did not require anybody to tell of his possible leadership over the other short people, who thought it just right for him to be in command.
‘You,’ he addressed Charles, an air of curious disbelief hanging about his persona, ‘you are Albert Bennett’s grandson?’
The matter was getting a tad thick, Charles thought, the strangest of strangers questioning them as regard their identity. But they were greatly outnumbered, and then, there was the wolf-animal too. For a brief second he ventured if he should lie of not bearing any relation with Grandfather and then the thing ended with. But that was not possible now, not after he had already told to Lysando; still, he could give it a try...
‘No,’ he said, making himself sound as confident as possible, ‘I’m not.’
‘What!’ Lysando was shocked, ‘But ye told me—‘
‘I lied to you,’ Charles cut across him,’ we—we just wanted you to let us go.’
‘Then why didn’t ye simply state ye got nothin’ to do with Albert?’
‘Because...’ Charles began cheekily, felling utterly helpless of what made-up reply he should give, when, fortunately, Aunt Isabella came to the rescue.
‘...You were making us feel crazed out!’ Said Aunt, tone very convincing, apparently understanding Charles’ intention, ‘We already said we were simple people, but you wouldn’t believe us!’
‘Simple people don’t come to Tropagia,’ said the short man, eyes gleaming suspicion.
‘Yeah, Tonkeytus,’ said Lysando, ‘and the boy’s surname’s Bennet!’
‘Bennet, eh?’ said Tonkeytus. He lent Charles an extremely penetrating look. ‘Let them go, you’re just being a nuisance to them, Lysando...’
‘Wh—what?!’ Lysando seemed as if the latter had slapped him, ‘Let ‘em go? Why in the world’s sake?’
‘You and your Bheria monsters,’ Tonkeytus snapped, ‘you are always problematic to everyone.’
‘Oh, Lysando, don’t be childish!’
Evidently this poked Lysando’s ego, for, in a fury, he said,
‘Who cares!’ and magically vanished before the next second dawned, together with his wolf-animal’
‘Pardon us please,’ Tonkeytus said to Charles’ group, and he and his men too disappeared in the blink of an eyelid.
Aunt Isabella heaved sigh of relief.
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