“Now what is it we’re looking for again?” Hrago asked for what must have been the dozenth time that morning.
“I told you, we’ll know when we see it,” Kadav replied tetchily, wiping sweat from his brow.
“If you think there’s something out here in these woods that can help us fight the dragon, then how come you ain’t said what it is? Because if we don’t know what it is we’re a-looking for, how are we going to know when we found it?”
Kadav sighed wearily. In hindsight, bringing Hrago along may not have been the best idea. Not only had the cabbage farmer failed to provide any helpful suggestions but his incessant nattering was wearing on his nerves.
The task had seemed so simple when they set out from town that morning. Having come up with the perfect lure, all Kadav needed now was a place to set the ambush. The town was too exposed and vulnerable, as the incident with the poisoned cow had demonstrated only too well.
Surely, somewhere in these rugged, overgrown hills was the perfect trap just waiting to be laid: a steep embankment for rolling down boulders, a large cave with a bottleneck entrance that could be sealed off, or maybe a leaf-strewn clearing where a net could be concealed. His mind brimmed with ideas, but all they had found so far were a lot of itchy burrs, shin-bruising roots and heckling birds.
“So what is it we’re looking for again?” Hrago asked.
“How many times do I have to say it?” He rounded on his companion. “I’ll know it when we see it. Sometimes you just have to have a little faith.” He chuckled ironically. It struck him as something the priest might have said.
“Now it’s funny you should say that ’cause ever since the dragon come, I been doing me some thinking…” The steady drone of Hrago’s voice blended into the background noises of the forest. “What’ll become of the farm when I’m dead and gone? My dogs don’t heed no voice but mine, and if the dogs run off then the rabbits will come in and eat up them cabbages. But if I had me a son or three, I wouldn’t have to fret ’bout them sort of things. That led me to decide I need to get me an able and proper wife. Ain’t no sporting gal going to bring up a proper man-child and I ain’t got no time for the raising of runts myself. Only I ain’t never met a woman that suits me for living with though I reckon there’s got to be one out there somewheres, just like there’s got to be fish at the bottom of the lake even though you can’t see ’em for staring.
“So the other day I’m coming out of the butcher’s when this here lass is walking out t’other way. She weren’t paying no attention and dang near smacked into me. She was right startled, she was, so I took her by the shoulders to steady her up a bit. It was the dangedst thing, the way she felt in my hands. She didn’t weigh but nothing and she were all soft and gentle like a little fawn. Now I must have seen her a hundred times ’round town but I hadn’t never given her two blinks on account she was just a young sprout of a thing. But she was all growed up now, I’ll tell you sure. Why, I ain’t never held no gal like that. She got these big green eyes remind me of my sister’s. You remember, the one that drowned down yonder at Willow Creek…”
Kadav led them down a natural arbor and through a thicket where he came across a game trail. It went on for some distance before arriving at a swift-flowing stream. He picked his way along the steep embankment, looking for a place to ford. “You know of a crossing hereabouts? Hrago, you hear me?” But his companion was nowhere to be seen. He tried to remember when he had last heard his voice. Back by the arbor perhaps? With a sigh of exasperation, he began to retrace his steps.
He found the cabbage farmer standing petrified behind a waist-high shrub. His face was pale and bloodless.
“Is it gone?” Hrago asked in a tremulous voice.
“Is what gone?”
“The bee. It flew into that bush.” He motioned with his eyes.
Kadav moved over to the shrubbery in question. “No bees here.”
“What’s that buzzing sound then?”
“Oh, that.” Kadav spotted the culprit. “Just a dragonfly.” He raised a hand to shoo it away, but the dragonfly, mistaking it for a branch, alighted on his finger. “See here.” He held it up. With a flash of electric green, it whirred away into the woods.
“Ahhh.” Hrago’s sigh of relief was accompanied by the delicate tinkling of water.
Kadav jumped back from the rustling bush.
“Sorry,” Hrago said. “I’ve been holding it in. The bee came, and I was afraid to go. It could have stung me down there.”
“What happens when you get stung?”
“I swell up real big and turn purple.”
At last, the tinkling noise gave way to sporadic pattering and Hrago laced up his breeches.
“We better be moving along,” Kadav said. “There’s a stream up ahead. I figure we’ll cross over and see what’s beyond.”
“Just more of the same,” replied Hrago. “Goes on like this all the way to the latrine-lands.”
“How did you come to know so much of the territory?” Kadav asked. So far as he knew, the cabbage farmer had never traveled a hundred paces beyond town, his farm or the well-worn path that ran between them.
“I run off once.”
Kadav brushed aside this personal revelation. “If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll have a look around anyway.”
“Suit yourself. Though if it were up to me, I might have a look-see around the Pillars of Rho.”
“What in Orduvan’s name makes you think of hiking all the way to the bleeding Pillars?”
“Way I see it, the dragon is the biggest animal there ever was, and the Pillars of Rho have got to be the biggest trees there’s ever been. Seems like they were made for each other.”
In a profoundly simple way, Kadav had to admit the cabbage farmer had a point.
* * * * *
To reach the Pillars of Rho, the mayor and the cabbage farmer had to retrace the distance they had already come then hike several hours southwestward through densely wooded, rolling terrain. The forest dimmed as clouds clotted overhead. A light rain fell, percolating through the leaves to explode in fat droplets upon their heads. Their drenched shirts turned heavy upon their backs and their boots filled with water. The sodden leafmould squelched underfoot like flatulent mice.
“If it’s all the same to you, mayor…” Hrago said when they reached the southern trail leading back to town.
“Go on,” Kadav read his thoughts. His fidgety companion longed to get back to the quiet industry of his farm. “I can manage on my own from here.”
Kadav pressed onward alone, ignoring the tightening in his calves. The way became darker and more tranquil as lumbering oaks and stout sycamores gave way to straight-backed pines with high branches that shaded out the understory, leaving cavernous open spaces. Sunlight was distilled through the high canopy as if through a smoky green glass. The forest was eerily hushed. Faint snatches of birdcall drifted down from high overhead while a nearby stream plucked softly at its harp strings. Even his own footsteps were soft and muted.
Scattered among the tall pines were other trees taller still, gray towers so wide and tall they seemed to prop up the sky. Legend had it that the seeds for the god trees had been bequested to Biduran, the Second Son, by The Lord of the Skies himself. Jealous of his brother Iduran’s gift of a winged beast to ride upon the winds, Biduran threw his seeds down to the earth in disgust.
“You have acted unwisely,” Rhojë said when he found out what his second-borne had done. “For where you have planted, there you must also tend. And because you have cast your seeds down to the earth, it is there that you must look after them.” From that moment forth, Biduran was banished from the heavenly realms and forced to walk upon the earth as a common mortal.
“For how long must I walk upon the Earth?” Biduran pleaded in tears with his father.
“Until the trunks of the seeds you have sown grow broad as leviathan’s back. Until their leaves drink the dew of the stars. Until the mountains cool in their shadows and the clouds perch in their branches,” replied the Lord of the Skies. “When their fruit ripens and falls to the earth, then you may once again ascend to the skies and take your seat at the left hand of my glory.”
As Kadav penetrated deeper into the valley sanctuary, it was easy to imagine a lonely god wandering among the dim, open spaces, weeping softly to himself.
Ahead loomed a majestic pair of god trees, like gateposts built on a scale for gods or giants. Or dragons, Kadav thought, gazing skyward. The way their trunks soared into the misty green heights gave him a sense of falling, upsetting the inner equilibrium that grounded him to the earth.