Steinbeck meets Tolkien in this magical adventure in 1920s Oklahoma.
Into the Forest
The day was bright and warm, even amidst the forest, where the light came down in fragmented rays. Their horses stepped carefully through the brush; there was no path, and the going was slow as they could not gallop through the wood. Jobe navigated, and the others followed.
Del could not stop thinking about what Thomasine had said about God last night. She knew what people said these days, but she had always considered everything a creation by Him -- especially the natural world around her. Maybe people were a mistake, she did not know; but she did know the world was a wondrous thing, even through the sundering. It's just that people made it so hard for each other -- she thought of how she had claimed lack of empathy as a great evil, and she still believed that.
The hooves of their mounts stepped easily over the twigs, leaves, and rocks of the forest floor.
The air was still.
The birds chirped.
They rode deeper into the wood.
Sometime later, Del caught a blur of motion out of the corner of her eye. She turned and looked into the forest, but saw nothing but the trees. She could have sworn though that something moved, just out of reach of her sight.
Huck experienced the same, perhaps a minute later. "Del," he said softly. "Stay close to me."
She nudged her horse closer to his. Fear shivered through her fingertips.
Flavian, who rode in the rear, urged his horse forward and conversed with Jobe. Finally, he slowed as the orc continued to lead, and the halfling moved his pony close to Del and Huck.
"Something in the forest," said Flavian. "Humanoids with one eye."
"One eye?" Huck asked.
"Probably cyclopes. They probably live here. But Jobe thinks they won't challenge us; in fact, he thinks they're guiding us a little."
"Guiding us where?" Del asked.
"Away from wherever they keep their women and children," said Flavian. "When Jobe sees one, he turns a little away from it. They will leave us alone if we stay away from them."
"And they're just watching us?" Del asked him.
"That they are. They can be fierce things, but mostly they are peaceful. Used to rule the world, millennia ago. Now they inhabit the nooks and crannies of the world."
"So we just leave them alone?" Huck asked.
"Yeah," said Flavian. "Jobe says there's probably a valley nearby where they live. We should avoid that."
Perhaps an hour later, Del ceased seeing the cyclopes on the edge of her vision. She never got got a close look at them -- they moved fast, and by the time Del turned her head, there was nothing to see.
After a while, they quit worrying about the cyclopes, whom they must have moved past. The afternoon sun hung high above them, and now a gentle wind played at the treetops.
Del began thinking of her mother, whom she scarcely remembered, but she did recall a haze of the woman reading her fairytales when she was just a child. They always told of mysterious, dark forests with magic lurking behind every tree and beneath every rock. Somehow she had been transported into a land of fairytales, and they weren't pretty, and the magic wasn't wondrous. There was just something... ill about the world, and what beauty she did perceive was always riddled by fear.
While she never spoke of it, Del remembered the fire that killed her parents quite well. She had been merely eight years old, a terrible age for tragedy to strike, but she realized now, that was just the way of the world. She had lived an idyllic life before then -- her parents had been rich, and they had spoiled her with both marvelous toys and glittering experiences.
Afterwards, when she was sent to live with her uncle, whom her father had never liked, and her uncle's wife, an apparently scandalous woman, she imagined her life -- for all intents and purposes -- would remain grim forever. But, as the years passed and the grief began to subside, she began to love her Uncle Huck and Aunt Gracie in ways she had never imagined she would.
And then the sundering came.
"Del," Huck said, stirring her out of her revelry.
"Yeah, Uncle Huck?" she asked.
"How ya doin?"
"I'm okay," she said, and she considered this was true.
"Yeah," she admitted.
"I can tell the others to stop for a while."
"No," she told him. "Not yet. I want to keep going."
"Alright," Huck said. "I think it's not far now. A little bit past the forest."
"That's good," Del spoke absentmindedly.
"I don't know what we're gonna come across in this city," said Huck. "But don't get lost, and stay near me all the time. God only knows what this place will be like. If we do lose each other, look for me on this side of the city, I'll wait for you, and then we'll head home, no matter what we've accomplished."
"What do you think it will be like?"
"I don't know," said Huck. "Strange, probably. I don't think the Good Lich sent Flavian and Jobe to protect us just on the journey, but in the city as well. The place might have just as many problems as O.C., remember that."
"I will," she promised.
"Wait!" cried Flavian, interrupting them. "There's someone coming from behind us. A rider!"
The halfling drew his knives, and Jobe wheeled his horse around until he was between the intruder and the rest of the companions. The orc pulled his axe from his back and grinned.
Now Del and Huck heard the hoof beats too -- rapid, flurried, coming towards them. It sounded like a single rider, and they peered into the trees to see who it was. Both Del and Huck held quick to their guns.
Finally, as the dark figure came into view, the rider slowed down and stopped, seeing the halfling and Jobe in front of him.
"Fuck that," said Flavian, turning away disappointed.
But Del and Huck smiled.
The rider was none other than the old cowboy, Bitter Jenkins.