Chapter 38: Village in the Forest
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Previously: After learning the location of one of the devastating spell’s crystals, Madnes and the group with him entered the forest and found the crowv village where it must be hiding. Now it’s time to investigate…
“A crystal supporting the spell is here,” spoke Madnes, once the rest of the group had caught up to him. “Somewhere in or near this forest village.”
Alice nodded. “Right. But will they tell us where it is?”
“If they know, they’ll tell me.” Oz swept past them, gliding down the narrow path leading into the village. Black wings materialized from his back, looking every inch a dark prince. Not to be left behind, Madnes grunted and hurried after him.
With no fence or guards, they strolled easily past several thatch and tent structures. The villagers paused in their chores when they caught sight of the strangers, and Madnes swallowed. They looked almost human, as Oz did, except for wings like a crow’s sprouting out their backs, and some had black feathers mixed in with their hair. Madnes also noted how frail and gaunt most appeared, malnutritioned compared to Oz’s fit figure. They stared like stunned deer, at first. One stirring the contents of a boiling cauldron paused, spoon half raised.
Oz came to a halt at the village center, near the heating cauldron and a central stone well, turning with a flourish of his long frock to face a gathering crowd. “It has been too long since my last visit,” Oz spoke. “How do I find you?”
One crowv ventured to step forward, an elderly man with graying, frayed wings. “You find us well, Prince Oz,” he wobbly bowed a knee. “You honor us with your presence and your concern.”
It was strange, seeing Oz treated as a prince—a person he’d once thought to be normal. Madnes wanted to speak up, but felt a burly hand on his arm, Uncle Cosmic motioning he keep quiet. “This is Oz’s territory,” he whispered, “Leave the talkin’ to him.” Madnes grumbled, but complied.
“And the illness? Has its spread slowed?” questioned Oz.
The elder paused, wetting his lips. “Come to the head house, Your Highness. I think it best we speak there…”
The head house was a thatch and mud piece of work, with a fire pit at its center, and small window holes letting in air. The elder Morak motioned they sit on a ring of pillows surrounding the pit, a kettle heating above it.
An illness without a name had ravaged the crowv people across Wonderland, villages such as this one, and though it had slowed for a period of years, the death toll was once again on the rise. The same one that took the life of Oz’s mother.
“Your mom died?” Madnes blurted out, shocked. “Wh…” Conversation paused, Cheshire, Pelur and the elder watching him, while Alice and Harrey looked just as surprised as he felt. Oz didn’t meet his gaze, instead staring off at nothing, tight lipped. “Why…why didn’t you tell me?” he turned towards Oz anyway. “I knew she was ill, and suspected that was the reason your family moved away, but…but…” he couldn’t get the words out.
Oz’s brow creased. “Save your pity for yourself,” he lowered his voice, “You’re the last person I want compassion from.”
The words stung, but Madnes held his silence. It was Cheshire who then brought up the topic of the Terraforming spell, and a crystal having been detected somewhere nearby—the main reason for their being here, in the first place. The elder rubbed his scraggly chin thoughtfully. “I’ve not heard of any such thing found here…but by all means, you are free to search the village as you please. We will not refuse you anything you wish, Prince Oz,” he dipped his head. Oz slightly nodded in return, black feathers in his blonde hair rustling.
“We will do just that. And scour the outer perimeters,” Oz decided.
“The surrounding forest?” Morak’s behavior turned suddenly worried. “It is bad luck to go far from the village.” His wrinkly throat rippled as he swallowed. “Those who do, show signs of the illness quickly. It lurks out there…”
Oz’s gaze hardened, as if changing his mind about something. “I want to find the source of it,” he suddenly said. “Cheshire, you and your group can search for the crystal as you like, but in the meantime, I want to hunt down this illness.” His jaw set, and he rose off the pillows. “Let me know when the crystal is found.”
Madnes stared after him, lips parted. He could almost see remnants of his former best friend there, in that moment, the kind person he once knew. Oz cared about his people—as cold and heartless as he’d been towards Madnes and his friends, he was different here among Wonderlanders, if still a bit icy around the edges. ‘It’s just me he hates.’
“No, please, Your Highness! Don’t risk it!” the elder’s eyes shown desperately, and he made as if to stop his prince.
“It is my decision to make, Morak,” stated Oz firmly. It was clear he would not be swayed.
“You cannot go far, then. You must avoid getting too near the river. Those dying of the illness go there, never to come back.”
“A river? You don’t fish?” Madnes had to ask. “Your people look like they’re starving. I’d think fishing would be a great—”
“No, no,” Morak berated. “Anyone who goes that far will catch the illness! Instead, we hunt the trees for birds that come close. It’s not enough food for us, no,” he admitted somberly, “but better to go hungry than die in such a terrible way.”
Oz hesitated for only a second. “I don’t believe in bad luck. If you say going outside the village perimeters is how crowv have been catching this illness, then there must be a tangible explanation—a source that we can track down.” His blue eyes narrowed, “I’m surprised Father hasn’t sent more people to investigate this. I thought it was an inborn illness, something genetic…but now it sounds nothing of the sort.”
“It’s too dangerous, Your Highness. It may pose a threat to non-crowv, as well, if any of you should venture too far.”
“Why don’t you abandon this forest, and move somewhere else?” Harrey suggested, for once sounding logical.
Morak fixed him with a look that said he clearly didn’t understand. “The bad luck follows with us. It doesn’t matter where we go, Earthian. We cannot escape it.”
“It follows you?” Cheshire’s ears flattened. “How is that possible? If you catch it from your environment, then moving should put a stop to it.”
“Something else is going on…” The wheels in Madnes mind began to turn and whir; there was a mystery to be solved. “But to do it, we’ll have to risk going out there and finding it.”
“Stop putting your nose where it doesn’t belong,” growled Oz. “This is my job. Make yourself useful and go find that crystal.”
Madnes stiffened, letting the prince glide past his shoulder without so much as a glance. ‘Stubborn mule.’
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This is my entry for this week’s #BlogBattle challenge by the wonderful author Rachael Ritchey, where the challenge is to write a short story based on that week’s chosen word. This week’s word was: “Forest.” Check out the link, read other great stories there, and VOTE for your favorite 3 to win!
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