Chapter Two - That Strange Mutant Man

Lightning hadn’t set aflame another apple tree amongst the whole of the Ruby Orchard that day, although a fire had taken a moderate patch of the neighboring forest as seen from a scope at a distance, charring the pine trees, making them a good haul for firewood and kindling. The fire hadn’t spread farther due to the heavy rains he guessed. Trem intended to trek out there and cut some down for the fire pit and the fireplaces elsewhere in the house. Last thing anyone needed was someone in the family getting sick from being too cold. The shivers brought on illness with ease. There was an onslaught of illness going on amongst the farmers, hampering with their heavy workload, but the Imbernoc family was hardier than most, and keener than most as well to keep such a thing off.

It did not hurt they had elixirs and potions at their disposal, but that also did not mean the alchemic solutions would work for whatever fell on them, nor that they had the correct elixir or potion. Any manner of alchemy was not instant as well, even those poured into wounds or applied to gauze and bandage.

What did happen was that a horse got loose; the beating hooves so frantic in its panicked escape deep prints of horseshoes were left in the muddy earth. Trem had found the pale wood gate rattling in the weak rains from the dregs of the storm. His heart skipped a beat, thinking a wolf had gotten in from the soft prints of paws moving amongst the hoof prints of the horse. Upon closer inspection, Trem could discern that the prints were one of their dogs, wolfish in appearance but slighter than actual wolves were. The prints were not dug too deeply into the muddy earth either, suggesting lighter footfalls. The rest of the animals were making a mild din, the pigs and goats the most persistent in their noises with the barks of the wolfish dogs rising above the rest.

Trem ventured inside the stable, the floor soft with downtrodden straying hay and the air thick with the familiar smell of farm animals, to further find the horse’s pen broken open as if kicked by the animal. The hinge-like lock upon the pen’s door didn’t make a difference against such brute force that the wood splintered and broke. Trem crouched down and picked up a clump of the jagged splinters in hand, staring at them. Odd behavior for the horse under normal circumstances, but this horse tended to be unruly and fidgety in inclement weather. That storm had been worse than most with the high volume of the thunder, with at least one flashing rod of lightning touching down. The rumbling had been so strong it started Trem awake multiple times, a vexing occurrence being as he did not behave like that to the distant rumbling of quakes. It was hard to believe his sleeping mind could so sharply discern the difference between the rumblings of thunder and quakes. Quakes were more dangerous even, but the distant soundings of them so frequent they little affected his Ruby Orchard.

Regardless, for anything but an animal this behavior wouldn’t make sense to Trem, being as the stable and pen were the actual shelter and dashing out into the storm was running headfirst into the danger and source of fear, opening the four legged animal up to even more dangers such as prowling wolves. Hopefully the horse hadn’t made it too far yet, and Trem’s tracking skills would hold up to the test as this was something Trem sought to handle by himself. He didn’t even tell anyone he was doing it. He didn’t want to be told no, and he didn’t want help.

He’d take help from one of their dogs though, that didn’t count like a person would telling him what to do or leading the way. It’d just be foolish not to use what the dogs were meant for. As Trem began to look for a dog to take, he heard a familiar panting. He turned to a wolfish dog that had padded over from the direction of the light pawprints had led. It was Ren, maybe she was the one that followed the tracks, and being of a short attention span, she returned. After a ruffling of the furry ears, Trem collared Ren the dog, and then trekked out after the hooves smashed into the mud and sod, leading away into the thicket past the curving rows of apple trees of the orchard. With a hood up, of a heavily worn and handed down oiled jacket, the light rain pattered quietly, beading off of him. It sounded distant like he was still inside and the rain was cascading off the roof, tinkering with a wood carving of fitted together pieces, shavings grounded onto his fingertips. The dog snuffled intently after the tracks, his nose nearly into the muddy prints.

Trem breathed in heavily of the bracing scents of light rain, faded into a drizzle. The storm all but gone brought out the scents of the orchard and the land, mingled in the clean and fresh scent of rain. The smells of the earth were distinct to Trem after a storm and subtly different each time. He suspected that wasn’t truly the case, and it was instead that he was different. Each day that passed, Trem was different, typically in subtle ways. It was a part of life with the passing of time, the events and activites of each day molding into him, the memories churning out a slightly different Trem all the time.

“Eh, why don’t we go at a run until the forest, Ren?” he asked curiously of the wolfish dog, whose ears perked up with eagerness and his tongue hung out after an exuberant bark.

Trem ran with Ren, the family’s wolfish dog of a few years. The dog was the offspring of multiple generations of their breed, having been around even before his father was born. It was objectively sad that Ren never had met his father, but it would’ve been better for her health, especially since his father’s death would have more likely happened when she was a pup. Ren’s father and mother hadn’t been fortunate like that. The two of them moped about, sinking into bouts of apathy that hampered their responsibilities to the farm, their cousins joining in, forming piles of whiny, gloomy dogs. Granted, not much of anyone else wanted to be doing anything. Willpower was harder to come by for a time, except his brother. He was like a steam train, toiling away at more than double his own share of work. That comparison Trem could only make from his mother, who would only offhandedly say the train and tracks had been set in a farther part of the Rivenlands, too many fissures around too broad and steep of a canyon to be visited. It wasn’t the first time Trem had suspected his mother wasn’t from the Rivenlands, but that was all it was – suspicion. It wasn’t logical in the slightest, as it was unheard of to the point of impossibility, but it didn’t stop Trem from thinking so, and while he’d rarely admit it to himself, hoping so. Just maybe he’d wheedle the secrets out of his mother, and the way out of the Rivenlands. Even if just for a single peek at what the outside world was like.

Doesn’t make sense why she’d wana hide that, does it? Trem thought to himself as he ran a couple spans of a distance beside the tracks, Ren rushing ahead of Trem already tugging at his collar and leash of finely tight woven rope. I guess people are wary enough of her as is, with the alchemy, maybe the bright red hair. She couldn’t go admitting she’s from somewhere else. But why not to us? It’s not like we’d talk about it to anyone… Maybe I would have, being so little. I used to say tons of stupid stuff.

He imagined his brother might say, ‘Oh, you don’t anymore?’

Trem and Ren passed the tree line of the thicket, the path of hooves obscured by the sparse brush, bramble, and thin trees. A cone fell by Trem, and he kicked it aside as he stared into the thicket. He didn’t see the horse yet. Some of the brush was misshapen, like it was trod on. Ren snuffled on, padding after the trail and scent. Fortunately it didn’t appear that the scent was masked or washed away by the light rains, or maybe Ren just made a show of it and was keen enough to follow the physical trail of hoof prints.

Ren at the lead, Trem pushed through brush and determinedly avoided the prickly bramble, while weaving through the thin trees, clustering together like bristling arrows in a quiver. As the trek wore on, over an hour passing of stomping through the thicket, silent but for the drizzle and the snuffling from Ren, Trem grew concerned. How far had the horse gotten? Did the two of them somehow mistake where the trail went and were going the entirely wrong way? Trem’s grip tightened on the roped leash and he stopped. Ren resisted, whining as he tried to push forward, like he could overpower Trem. As scrawny as Trem was, he had a good grip and good footing at that moment. Trem searched around the tracks, and found near fallen branches by a tangle of underbrush the hoof prints were less noticeable, like the horse had calmed down about here, like maybe someone had gotten hold of the horse and soothed the frantic animal.

A whipping wind coursed through the forest, swaying the trees heavily and knocking free cones, plunging them like hail about Trem’s location. He skittishly hoped away, and unnecessarily so as the cones didn’t even hit where he was. Trem put his hand to his hood, keeping it down. He scanned their surroundings, searching for a silhouette of the horse with his lips pursed in frustration.

And then he saw something, on the sudden rise of rock strewn earth several yards away, with spindly trees clinging to its rough slope. It was a tall shape, like the outline of a man. Had someone found their horse then? Then again, who would be out here? This wasn’t much near anyone’s land but theirs. Perhaps Trem merely saw the horse looking over the sharp slope, only it’s front portion seen and so it seemed to be similar to a man. Trem hurried in the direction of the silhouette, scaling the sharp rise and maneuvering around the jagged rocks, darkened by the rain. The trees swayed heavily in another whipping breeze, carrying less rain than the last had. The rain was finally letting up it seemed.

Trem gripped onto rocks with just a hand, using them as purchase to help him forward and up the steep incline, the other on Ren’s leash whom scaled the incline with far more vigor and exuberance than Trem did. Not enough that he pulled Trem along. Trem reached the top, his boots layered in dirt from digging in the earth so much. From there, he could see the thicket expand before him, opening up into a dense forest with pine trees amidst pockets of thin scar-like fissures. The land rose and fell intermittently, but it always of a lesser rise than the incline Trem stood upon now.

Trem scanned his surroundings, kicking his boots a bit on the ground to shake loose the mucky dirt. And there, just in a small clearing shrouded by the bristling thin trees, with leaves so high you saw none of them unless you looked up, was their horse, bareback and unharnessed as he had been put into the pen and stable with a figure resting his hand on its mane. Trem wasn’t sure, but the figure’s hand looked overgrown with pale and rough scales that looked partly shedded maybe. The figure was turned away, with dark brown, matted and lanky hair like he had been out in the storm all night and dunked into mud puddles at some point. Trem called out, his chest tight from hard breathing of the strain from the climb. The figure didn’t turn, didn’t move as if he heard Trem, but the horse did, neighing in a familiar way.

As Trem got closer, Ren barking happily, he slowly recognized who it was. Don, one of the older farmers miles away, whom tended to flat and tall fields of corn and wheat. He was known for a stiff knee that acted up on him at times, he’d been somewhat unfortunate during a quake one time, but survived unscathed aside from that knee. Hardly much of a price in Trem’s opinion. Don may very well have been out in the storm all night if he had left his farm yesterday just to get here. It was all very strange, and so were the curlingly pointed, gnarled ears sticking prominently out from either side of his head. Nobody he knew had gnarled ears, and specifically not Don. Maybe it was an illness Don had caught, and he had been hurrying even through the storm to get here, but this was one of the worst paths to get to the Ruby Orchard, to the degree it was nearly all pure overgrowing wilderness. Don would know that, shouldn’t he?

Don’s hand stroked along the horse’s mane. Don looked over his shoulder; his face wizened like he was several years older than Trem had last saw him that winter. Startlingly and disturbingly his face appeared to be scaled like cracking, chalky stone. Don’s eyes were beady black like an animal’s as he grinned, his teeth stained green like he had been chewing a lot of clumps of wet grass. And then he just walked away, without a word, in what looked like a random direction to Trem, of which was not towards the Ruby Orchard.

Trem called out after him, after a few bewildered moments, “Oi, Don!? You alright? Do you need help? The Orchard isn’t that way! It’s south! Hey, can’t you hear me?”

Silence was his response, and before Trem was urged to go after him, he had lost sight of him already in the thicket. It grew dense past the tiny clearing, denser than all of what Trem had trekked through to get here. Several feet into the thicket and Don was gone, like he was never there at all. Trem had an unnerving feeling like he shouldn’t bother him, and he wasn’t sure he could drag him in the direction of the Ruby Orchard anyway. But Trem thought about it some more and considered what if Don was so sick and ill that he didn’t know where he was or where he was going anymore. How could he have gotten so badly, so quickly, that he didn’t even have his family to help him get here? They had a cart, for moon’s sake. Maybe it happened upon Don so suddenly, and it was so contagious he didn’t tell his family. He only ran off. Or maybe his family did go with him, but lost him along the way.

He didn’t know what it could be, but he decided he had to try to help. It would haunt him if Don actually needed his help and Trem did not do a thing about it. Trem hurried up beside the horse, and latched Ren’s leash around the horse’s neck in a taut, sturdy knot that wouldn’t pull free unless someone undid it and probably knew how to untie this specific sort of knot. Anyone in the Ruby Orchard would know, even Haun. He rubbed down the horse’s neck, soothing him, and then motioned to both Ren and the horse in the direction of the Ruby Orchard.

“Home! Home!” Trem said to Ren, whose ears perked up at the learned command. Ren turned and loped off, his tail curling on itself in the way that earned Ren loads of affection from the Imbernocs. Trem hoped he’d be able to catch up.

Trem rushed off after Don, passing through the clearing with a few white wild flowers, and then into the dense thicket. Trem struggled to push aside and push through the clustering trees, their trunks thin like branches so they were pliant and able to be pushed; however this remained to be a difficult endeavor, especially when Trem was trying to catch up to and find someone he didn’t have in his sight any longer. “Don? Don!” Trem called. “Come back, I can help! I can bring you to the Ruby Orchard! My Mother can help you!”

Trem continued forward, only bristled trees, brush and undergrowth in sight, a vivid green from the rainfall. A charred clump of trees reared in front of Trem, which he steered clear off despite the danger they didn’t pose. He wasn’t much inclined to get char rubbed off on him. “Don?” Trem called out again, his footfalls slowing down. He felt lost, like he was in the middle of nowhere, with only a dense thicket surrounding him, hiding Trem from any familiar markings or landscaping.

There still hadn’t been an answer, and so Trem searched amongst the undergrowth and hardy dirt. There was little mud this far in the woods, and in this portion of dense thicket. Altogether it revealed little to him of tracks. He partly regretted leaving Ren behind, as he could definitely use Ren’s nose to find Don now, but he couldn’t leave the horse behind. There wasn’t anything to tie the horse to either, being as the only available rope was Ren’s leash and collar, and without those Ren would be lost worse than the horse had been. Give it to Trem to choose the younger, more rambunctious dog.

Trem tried for a while longer. It amounted in nothing. He didn’t even see a glimpse of Don, or any signs he had been through this part of the forest. Not a bent back branch, not any crumpling of a brush, or even any soft depressions into the underbrush. The dirt yielded no tracks either, like it fiercely believed it was stone and would act just like that. It would certainly brook nothing less. Trem hung his head, sighing in defeat. “Fine, Don!” he called in exasperation.

Someone so adamant at not being found must know what he’s doing, which is not being found, Trem thought, aggravated. Trem pushed back the way he went, tired out already so early in the day from this dense, dark barked thicket and the trek through the pale barked thicket below the steep, rocky incline with the thin and straggling trees.

At the apex of the steep incline Trem saw Ren leading the horse through the thicket ahead, just nearly still in sight. In a hurry, Trem slid his way down the steep incline, briefly breaking into a stomping run to avoid jutting rocks, while small pebbles and lines of dirt rolled and fell free in his wake. Hitting the leveling ground, he slowed, unenthused at the prospect of tiring himself out anymore.

What was he going to do about Don? He had no idea how they’d find him out in the forest, and less of a clue as to where Don might be now. He’d have to jot down on the map where Don had been seen, and then they could form a radius from that. Except, what if Don’s illness was so contagious they couldn’t get near him safely? They might not even have any medicine for him yet. Fortunately this wasn’t something Trem had to decide on himself, and so he didn’t envy his brother or mother for being forced with that responsibility; that didn’t stop Trem from feeling relieved about it though.

Trem stepped around an old thin tree, its bark faded against the more pure white of its brethren, and chipping and peeling besides. His footfall, trying neither to rush in that moment or be quiet, made a noticeable squishing sound on a low pile of leaves, having fallen so long ago and collected together they were decomposing, softening them into a partly cohesive mass coupled with the storm’s rains. Then he saw a large and lumpy browned shape out of the corner of his eye, and looked, his auburn crimson hair tossing past his vision; the lengths of hair that escaped his hood. A hulky, dark brown grizzly bear was pawing at some pale brown mottled underbrush, which upon closer and drawn attention appeared to be an oval wild rabbit burrow, its tunnel dark past the overlying underbrush. The grizzly bear had thick rolls of fur, laying over corpulent muscle, and had sharp yellow eyes, like a lone wolf hungry for meat, even the strange meat of a person – or in this case, a little boy. Its claws seemed to be at least half a foot long, but they just couldn’t be. That was too long for claws, for anything’s and anyone’s claws had the right to be. It had a stubby tail, ironically small and tuftish like a rabbit’s. It’s rear end, possibly the most horrifying sight out of the general presence of the bear, was smeared with a dark brown, browner and blacker than its fuzzy, dense coat, that was wet and thick like what it most likely was – swiftly vacated feces. Although it was possible, and hopefully this was the case for sheer decency’s sake, that the bear had plopped it’s globe-like rear end into a muddy bank of a river or stream overly sodden from the storm’s heavy rains to swipe at the rushing waters in search of gleaming, silvery fish.

After a gag struggled to be silent with his tough glove over his mouth, Trem froze up from the tips of his boots to his brows, a chill racing his spine as his fists clenched in their tough gloves. The grizzly bear had not seen him yet, and hadn’t noticed Ren or the horse either who were not in sight. They must not have taken a path too close to where Trem had, or the grizzly bear had not been here yet. Trem hoped the grizzly bear could not catch wind of his scent either, considering the heavy stink coming off its rear end, if it was not just caked mud from a bank of a river. Trem frantically glanced about his feet, discerning where the brush would emit a crack (aside from the cushiony pile of leaves his boot presently rested on), and where fallen twig-like branches lay, threatening to trip or snap in this quiet thicket. The rain had stopped, so the covering noise from that was gone, and the rain had been so newly here there were not any birds chipping or animals about to distract or lure the bear away.

Trem was on his own, in a quiet and damp thicket, with not even a dog to help him, and no one knew where he was either. If he was mauled by the bear, left somehow alive like the bear considered him only a threat while capable of moving instead of an enticing morsel, he didn’t know how long it’d be until someone found him, and by then it’d probably be too late, knowing Trem’s luck – which was rather poor luck, aside from the lightning strike depending on how one looked at it. It could be considered lucky that Trem just barely missed the point of impact of the lightning strike, and it could also be considered unlucky that he was so close to the lightning strike, dare say almost hit. Trem personally considered it lucky that he hadn’t been hit, being as his luck tended to steer towards misfortune. Trem was not the one to find coins lying alongside the dirt, dusty road, trodden by the many and long years by boot, cart, and horse.

Trem took a shaking, reluctant but very careful step, and the grizzly bear’s rounded ears twitched, the inside of them white and fluffy. If not for that muzzle and face furrowed with rolls of fatty fur, the bear might be considered beautiful and admirable in the way that all animals seemed to innately be, no matter green and grey, slimy scales forming diamond-like patterns with peering eyes or blue and orange feathers gleaming like they were burnished under the sun. Regardless of the way the bear’s face and muzzle looked, the rear end smeared with thickly dark wet, highly suspicious to be runny feces, sealed its fate as being one of the more unsightly and unpleasant of the animal kingdom. The grizzly bear, ignorant of Trem’s general cringing at its ugly and dirty state, growled as he pawed at the rabbit hole, concealed and guarded cleverly by dead, browning brambles amongst that pale brown mottled underbrush. That hadn’t been enough though. A prickly tangle of a vine-like arm of the bramble barbed the bear’s paw, and angrily it shook it, making Trem’s stomach sink. The paw was as easily as big as his head. Trem took another step while the bear growled to himself, and a few more until the bear turned, its yellow sharp eyes right on Trem. Trem froze rigid again, like the bear might just not see him anymore, but it clearly did. A frantic decision was made in a couple hasty, heart pounding, and boot shaking seconds. He’d make a run for it. Trem would try, with his scrawny and short legs, make a run for it. And so Trem took off at a sprint, his boots tossing up sodden leaf and clumps of dirt with pale, thin roots sticking out of them. He stumbled and swerved around the thin trees, threatening to bar his way and doom his fate if he just happened to smack into one.

He did not know if the grizzly bear chased after him, loping with strides that reached thrice as far as his scrawny legs did, even stretched out as they were, shoving into the earth with not a care as to what tracks he left or how much noise he made in doing so. Trem just kept running as fast and as hard as he could manage, the urgent fear giving him wings to soar at a speed he had not known he had spare one bleak and terrifying event in his life. He was like a fawn startled into their majestic prancing dash, fleeing out of sight in moments in great, jaunty bounds but for a fierce, swift, and powerful predator such as a dandelion yellow, shadow spotted cheetah or starving, salivating grey wolf with eyes as piercingly yellow as that hulking grizzly bear. Trem wasn’t majestic as a fawn however, he was like a flailing baby with rolls of fat, useless unlike the grizzly bear’s so of course the baby would not be nimble in the least, being as Trem stumbled and skidded in his mad, desperate run, scraping past spiky brush and clumps of leafy branches with hard pits of acorns.

Trem hoped the bear was smart and content enough to stay by his rabbit hole, where the juicy meal had no choice but to come to him; this was presuming the wild, skittish rabbits were even in their home. He wasn’t sure what flighty, small animals such as a den of rabbits would do in a situation like that, with a hulking predator sniffing loudly at their gaping doorway. Trem supposed wild rabbits wouldn’t survive so long as a species if the critters were wont to dash at the slightest provocation while within their dens. Fast as wild rabbits were, their coats colored like the surrounding forest in shades of stone grays, dirt browns, and grassy dark greens, Trem didn’t think many of them would make it out unscathed with the bear right atop the burrow’s entrance and exit. He’d be shockingly surprised if two made it free unscathed, and moderately surprised at just the one, depending on how many rabbits were in there and if any of them were infants. If Trem was a rabbit, he’d make an escape hatch or hole a decent amount of paces away, with the burly bear being none the wiser that his quarry had escaped by a simple yet clever trick. More likely just one rabbit would dart out the entrance in front of the bear, scratching by the bramble they must have to maneuver around each time they enter or leave their covered and hidden burrow. That way, they’d lure the bear away from their family, but Trem didn’t know if wild rabbits such as those had instincts to preserve their family, even sacrifice themselves so that their family may live on to see another day where the sun sinks into the horizon, casting the sky in a ruddy warm glow.

Regardless, Trem wasn’t foolish enough to think that a speeding boy wouldn’t be enticing to the bear, and he knew sourly he should’ve brought a pale yew wood bow, curving from the riser and then bending back out like an arch that flattened at the ends with a tightly wrapped grip, and a banded wood quiver of feathered lightwood arrows with him, tipped with a light and pale metal; the bow prepped and strung as well, being as the yew wood bows they owned were never left strung, as that would degrade the integrity and thus the power of the bow when nocking and shooting an arrow because the wood would gradually and surely bend into the shape of the applied elastic tension from the string. The bow, and string, would be more at risk to snap as well, a thing no one wanted to happen to them when in use, such hunting the family’s dinner that night. Trem wasn’t one to test his luck from carelessness or ill preparation when he could help it, when he realized he was doing it, and that was half the battle – knowing he was setting himself up for disaster, such as just this very thing with the lack of arming himself. The bow was the exact sort of thing he’d forget, protection, as if the thicket and woods were just an idle stroll in his back yard. He doubted just a single arrow would be enough to deter or fell the hulking grizzly bear as well, and though he was fairly decent at the bow it was not likely he would strike the bear in the head or the eye, even with the bear facing him as it had been. A dog wasn’t either enough protection, even a more trained and ferocious guard dog, and it wouldn’t be right to order the dog at the grizzly bear, whom was easily four times the size as sweet little and exuberant Ren, keen to dirty his paws in puddles and dung just the same. It’d be horrifying to see the bear loom over Ren, rearing at its full height larger than a man, and beat down Ren, pummeling him with its great big paws and then clawing his beautiful brown tawny coat into red and scarlet soaked ribbons. Trem glanced quickly over his shoulder again and again, his long auburn hair filtering and blocking his vision when it flung itself in the way, while Trem wildly and desperately dodged thin trees, the air whipping as he passed, and leaped over rocks interspersed amongst the bramble and brush, landing with hard, jarring thuds that reverberated the impact up into his knees. And then suddenly he got snagged, stuck into a particularly malicious bramble he thought was a mere bush, one of the precise things he was fighting to not happen.

Oh that’s great, that’s just great, I’m going to be mauled to a bloody death while being stuck by knots! Trem cried to himself with his own thoughts. He wasn’t inclined to spare a breath to whine and shout that aloud, nor to give the bear any further information to hone on him and shred him into pieces, and if it hadn’t already, any more reason to give chase. Trem pulled at the clinging, prickly thorns coiled into hateful spiny balls with his hardy gloves, his hands trembling. His leather of his stiff gloves and oiled coat was thick and hardy enough to prevent the thorns from piercing through, and his coarsely woven denim more so. His heart raced in his ears, like any moment would be his last. The sound seemed intent on drowning out on anything else, such as the crucial information of an oncoming grizzly bear, the sound of its great paws hitting the earth making thuds like trees slamming into the forest ground. Was that a mass of brown, the hulking figure of the bear come to gnaw on his scrawny neck over there? He nearly cried as he fought to get out of the bramble, thorn after thorn latching onto him, until he just tore free entirely with a forceful lunge, denim pieces ripping out with the thorns leaving their mark of scratches on his skin. Superficial, but he wouldn’t have earned that if he had properly gotten out. And like it mattered, next to the half foot long, sleek black claws of that bear.

The trek that had taken him hours seemed to only take him several minutes of frantically paced running, with less commonly occurring stumbles that nearly brought his face into the sod, landing and dragging his cheek through the dirt and grass with the full brunt of the force right into his face. He didn’t once see Ren or the horse, like he had never brought Ren out here and never had a horse to find to begin with. But then Ren at full sprint, with a galloping horse behind him would drastically outpace him in how much ground could be covered in that amount of time. He wished he had found them, as riding bareback on the horse would be quicker and less strenuous than flinging himself through the forest as he was, hearing noises like the bear was yards behind him. A bear definitely could not catch up to a horse, especially a flighty horse such as that one.

Trem broke through the thicket, shaking the narrow trunks that rained down spinning bright green leaves, dripping and shimmery wet from the recent heavy rains. The rows of the Ruby Orchard, apples trees both lush with the ruby fruits and free with but their vivid green leaves, stretched off into the distance in slow, curving slants. Somewhere approximately in the middle but not quite so, more towards Trem at present, the buildings of the cider house and the Imbernoc’s family home was nestled amongst the rows upon rows of apple trees, swaying in a brisk wind that carried the scents of the damp and cool thicket into the orchard. Taking heavy steps, his boots feeling as heavy as iron ingots fresh from the red glowing, smoke fuming forge, Trem distanced himself from the edge and beginning of the thicket. He looked about himself, brushing off clumps of dirt, tangling tiny and pale roots, twisted branches with sparse tufts of leaves, and the wet green leaves newly fallen all over him from his oiled jacket and his denim trousers torn in sparse splotches. His chest was tight, strangling like he wasn’t getting enough air. He was breathing hard, his breath not caught yet. He sighed shakily, looking about himself some more and turning around to face the thicket, like the bear might just emerge, lunging, and dive onto him.

The grizzly bear did not come. There was not even a shadow of the hulking mass of the carnivorous beast. Trem wondered now if the grizzly bear had ever actually begun to chase him. He then wondered if the odd yellow color to its eyes meant it was blind, but he hadn’t ever heard of anything going blind from being yellow in the eyes. At the same time, he never heard of the strange disfigurations that had come to Don. In the end, he didn’t know, and he – while embarrassed at his terrified state and constant fleeing – was grateful that he hadn’t. Hopefully the bear wouldn’t happen upon Don, and at a whim, decide to eat him. Trem supposed Don, as sick as he was, would taste as great as a gnarled, noxious shroom, with short, blunt upraised lines nestled beneath the cap and mutationally growing just some onto the stem, the sort of shroom that’d be a mixture between piss yellow and acid green. Not that he had ever seen acid that was bright, sickly green like that, but that’s what the blacksmith’s kid said, joking and bragging about etching steel with acid. That was the kind of thing Trem would sell a whole barrel of freshly brewed spiced cider for, and those barrels cost a hefty amount, so much so that rarely did common families purchase them. Only the inns and more wealthy did. Trem wasn’t of mind with that sort of thing, being as if you wanted cider, you might as well purchase it as a barrel, as it was better priced, would store better, and then you could have all the more for yourself and for your family.

Trem’s heart had stopped blaring a while ago in his ears, he supposed it had been the fear and adrenaline – as his mother had taught him. Finally at present it was thumping at a more even, calmer pace, and his chest was feeling less tight, like a tiny man had been beating his tinier fists on it. He wiped his sweaty forehead, and looked over his messy state. Another bath and he’d have to clean and stitch the clothes himself, unless he wanted anyone to know he was out there. But wait, I can’t lie about it. Hard as it’d be, I could, but then how could I tell anyone about Don? Trem mulled over the subject, brushing the caked on, inches thick of dirt on his boot, from the tip of the boot down into the ridge patterned sole. He couldn’t find a way around it, not without obfuscating the facts and hampering Don’s rescue. He sighed to himself. All he wanted was to rescue the horse, that’s it. Do something right and by himself for once. But no, he had to run crying from a bear just about. It probably was a good thing he saw Don though, considering the state he appeared to be in. He had never seen anyone change to such a severe degree, but hoped regardless that it could be reversible, at least mostly.

Trem loped into the pale path between the rows of apple trees, their leaves rustling in the brisk winds. He pushed back his hood after he tugged off his dirtied glove that got shoved into his trousers deep pocket, and then he ran his hands through his hair in some effort to get it under more control. It was lanky with sweat, nearly grimy, the crimson auburn darkened like he had dunked his head into a stream, which made the sorry state of his hair all the more cringe worthy. Sweat was one of Trem’s most hated things in the world, beside the omnipresent quakes that riddled his whole world, being as the Rivenlands was just about his whole world. He liked to think there was more out there, somewhere that didn’t have those gaping rents and deep chasms, but he did not know and it was not in the least bit likely he would ever know. He scanned his surroundings, past the trees that passed by him like trailing columns, obscuring his vision for a couple seconds and then disappearing, only to do it again. Where were Ren and the horse? He crossed between two apple trees, bare of any lustrous fruit. He glanced about, not seeing them still, as the looming feeling that they were still out there, that something happened to them, started to cast over him like dark stormy clouds. Trem crossed a few more rows, nearing the Imbernoc family buildings progressively, dearly hoping they were simply just at the stable, by the broken open gate strewn with splinters and a still closed gate lock, none the wiser it didn’t serve its purpose and couldn’t, being as something entirely else failed.

And then there they were, Ren snoozing on his side by the small splatter of rubble from the broken gate door. The horse was chewing on some grass, apparently its nerves calmed from the long gallop and then Don’s soothing presence. The thought of Don gave Trem a shiver. Don didn’t appear to be debilitated from sickness, but he was definitely some sort of sick. Trem got this unmistakable and inexplicable feeling about him like he was turning into a shroom, just like the one he thought of, being a mixture of piss yellow and acid green, like the shroom that Don was going to become just could not decide which it wanted to be, so it decided to be in some odd shaded mixture.

Trem clambered up to them, slowing as he approached the horse, and rubbed the horse’s side, and then down its mane, whispering calming words to it. The horse neighed, then fidgeted by prancingly pattering its front hooves on the ground because of its dislike of the leash about its neck. The horse was unaccustomed to the uncomfortable pulling down towards the dog, Ren. Trem did not blame the horse, and felt bad for being the one that did it to him without coming up with a better solution at the time. Trem loosened the looped and knotted leash after some work, as Trem had annoyingly forgotten the process of undoing the taut knot for a little while. Trem lead the horse inside, choosing a free pen to stash the horse in. He placed some feed and hay beside the water trough and then closed the gate to the pen, latching it with the length of metal through the narrow plated hole.

Trem took a short while to himself, leaning his forehead against the flat beam that rose into the ceiling of the stable. He breathed in evenly, unbothered by the air that smelled of the farm animals, and by the din of the muddy pigs, the goats and bay dun horses. He could even hear the clucking of the pearly white chickens nearby, with the lone red rooster. He intended to clean up the bashed and broken gates, then strip himself of the dirtied clothing down to his smallclothes and then tell his brother what happened. His brother would be able to deal with it more properly while Trem got a rest and some food; sizzling bacon with a mug of chilled apple juice was mouthwatering just at the thought of it. There wasn’t any shame in that.

Today was an abnormal day, even before Trem discovered the bits of the smashed wood gate, being as by this time of the morning everyone would be awake and doing something, notably cooking and eating breakfast. He sighed longingly at the thought of that food. He blamed the storm, casting lightning on a tree that stirred everyone into caution in the form of watches. It happened maybe once before. Two times in his life it had happened. It was incredibly unlikely it would happen again on the same night, more unlikely than lightning hitting a third tree in general. Of all harms that had come from storms it was the winds when they were dangerously powerful, ripping trees from their roots. That was a rare thing too, but it had taken several trees rather than just the two lightning had, and were more dangerous towards the Imbernoc family than the orchard as a whole. The lightning was more caution worthy being if the fire hopped onto another tree, thus spreading into the orchard, it could cause catastrophic, even fatal damage.

When am I going to stop being so careless? And start thinking about what I’m doing? It feels like I just can’t help it, that I get so caught up with my ambitions and what I’m doing. It was so frustrating Trem was tempted to cry, which just made him feel worse about himself. He was a boy, soon to be a man. When just was he going to grow out of that tendency to cry when frustrated and angry enough? It was like the things the bratty, whiny kids in the villages did when they wanted to get their way or wanted attention for some absurd reason Trem didn’t have an inkling of.

Trem realized the short while he took was starting to draw out and he rushed off, brushing together the bits of wood into two separate piles and then finding sacks to store them in. Trem, Keld, or at least one of them might be able to use the broken bits of wood later for some project or just to fiddle with. He then dashed off into a sprint into the house, stashed his dirty clothes in the back room set up for laundry, with empty and wide buckets to be filled with soapy water and corrugated metal sheets framed with oak wood to scrub the dirty laundry on. Trem wasn’t sure but he thought he saw some translucent stink fumes waft off his black smeared, sweaty socks. He had to scrub a clean cloth at his feet just to make sure he didn’t leave any dirt strewn sweaty foot prints in the house, which made him realize he had to clean his trail into the house too. His shoulders sagged at the mere thought.

In just his smallclothes, consisting of mere cotton boxer shorts, he quietly scrubbed at the paneled floors wherever he walked in the house. It felt far too long and excessive, like his past self of just a few minutes ago was intent on some bizarre form of revenge for who knows what. Whatever it was, it definitely was not logical. He hoped no one else would get up from their sleep or naps and discover him, on his knees, appearing naked from a distance since from the front of him his lower body couldn’t be seen where his boxer shorts were. This was the extent he had to go to cover up his actions, and it was beginning to wear on him, to the point the point of doing it all was also beginning to escape him. Well, I’ve already gone this far. I’ll just under exaggerate what I did, if I’m pressed, he thought in finality, shrugging off any potential consequences.

Finished with the cursory, hurried job with the floors he quietly moved through the house, up the stairs and down the halls to his brother whom was napping from his watch. Trem hesitated, looming over his brother on his side of the double lofted, shared bedroom. There were windows set into his wood paneled wall as well, but rectangular and paned ones, with no cushiony seat to sit on and gaze out into the Ruby Orchard of swaying lushly green trees and the expansive thicket that spread into the distance with rocky and grassy rises alike. His brother had told him the seated window simply wasn’t to his preference, and teased Trem about his small, scrawny size, his heart not in it. There were grey shadows beneath his brother’s eyes, and his young face appeared haggard, which was why Trem hesitated. Trem did not think that waking up prematurely for a couple hours would produce such an effect, with being able to return to rest just after the shift was done. But his older brother Keld was still growing, and needed more sleep than a full grown man. He realized that his brother seemed so much older, so much stronger, and took on so much work without much hesitation that sometimes Trem forgot his brother wasn’t already a full grown man. He wondered what kind of brother that made Trem, to think that the burdens Keld bore were not as hard as they must have been.

Trem quietly stepped around his brother’s oak wood bed, with posts chiseled like great hammers, their long grips wrapped around many times in cloth and lengths of leather. A craftsmanship of Keld’s own make, done on a whim, or so it had seemed. Trem recalled asking after him as to why, and he just said, ‘Because I feel like it.’ Trem undid the latch of one of the rectangular windows, and pushed open the window slowly, as to not produce any squeaking; although there wasn’t any point in that, being as Trem was soon to wake him. Maybe on any other circumstance Trem wouldn’t, and would instead deal with the issue himself, but he couldn’t. He had flat out failed to find Don, and he sincerely doubted with seething aggravation that he could wrangle him back by brute force if he had dared to, considering Trem didn’t know if Don was contagious or not. Trem’s brow furrowed as he realized the issue with his plan. His mother would need to be woken regardless. His mother whom deeply, emphatically detested being stirred from slumber too early, and whom if roused from her coma-like slumber would be as irritable as a beast. In the end, it didn’t matter, as time enough would pass explaining to his brother.

So Trem roused his brother, saying his name as he gently shook him. Keld’s hand, propelled by a long, moderately bulky arm, swatted at Trem, smacking at his face like he was swatting a particularly persistent fly. Trem grumbled to himself, feeling like his brother’s hand left pink handprints on his face. “Come on Keld!” Trem said, sounding a lot like a petulant, whiny child, which he did not intend to whatsoever. He cleared his throat, trying to rid his voice of the squeakiness it was so obstinate at slipping into. “Keld, come on! Please wake up, I need your help. Keld, Keeeeld!”

His brother groaned, smacking his own face for once, his cropped hair a spiky mess every which way like a low clustered bush, clutching to the ground but flaring upwards in peak-like spikes haphazardly. Groggily he said, “Alright Trem, alright I’m up. Where’s the fire? Because I sure don’t smell it….uh, yeah, smell it or hear it or….err, I mean see it.”

Trem glowered, his arms crossing around his small frame. He looked askance out the window, past his brother whom pushed himself up into a sitting position on the edge of his bed, his night clothes consisting of a plain, white shirt and white trousers. “Not like your eyes are open to see it,” Trem retorted.

“Oh yeah?” Keld answered. “I’d see it through my eyelids!” Keld pointed at them, his eyes still challengingly closed. “Like the reddish orange glow of the sun rising when you’re still tuckered away in bed, when ya shouldn’t be.” Keld gripped the edge of the bed, the bunched up thin covers. “So, where’s the fire then?”

Trem sighed excessively loud at Keld. “It’s not the fire. I mean, there isn’t a fire… I’m sorry to have woken you Keld, the storm has passed and the orchard is alright. It’s just…I was out in the woods, looking for a horse that smashed open a gate and got loose…” Keld’s eyes flashed open in concern, as if he were immediately readying himself to deal with this problem. “Hey, no!” Trem said as quickly as he could manage, “I found the horse just fine, but then I saw Don….you know Don, the farmer some miles from the orchard. Out in the middle of the thicket just past that steep rise.”

“Don? That’s….that sure is strange he’d be out there…” Keld began saying.

But Trem cut him off. “Right, yeah. Except Don was petting the horse, looked like he calmed the bay down. When Don looked at me though, his teeth were stained green like he’d been eating yards of fresh grass and his ears were pointy, really large and gnarled. His eyes were beady like an animal’s and his….skin was scaled over with something hard and nasty.” Keld was silent for several moments that seemed to stretch on excessively to Trem. “You sure about what you saw?” Keld finally asked, grimness to his words.

Trem blinked, surprised. “Y-yeah, yeah I am. I tried to talk to him, but he just ignored me and walked off. I then tried to find him, but I couldn’t through that dense thicket, like he just…disappeared into a hole. Which, I didn’t see no hole!”

Keld nodded. “Best that you didn’t, I suppose. Might be contagious. I’ve heard once of something like that. From…father actually. Said a strange feller was wandering the road, teeth green all the way over like plants and with ears that hung from his head like coiling tails. He was dragging a bloody, partly eaten deer with him, its guts tangled and trailing behind it, leaving a nasty crimson smear alongside and on the dirt road. He was talking about it to Mother, and didn’t seem to intend for me to hear. I told him that was the sort of thing I needed to know, in case I ever came across anyone else stricken with that disease…y’know, so I’d know what to do. ‘Cept they didn’t think I’d ever find someone like that again, to the point they were absolutely sure of it. Sounds like they were wrong…” Keld frowned at that, like there was something out of place about that, which made Trem wonder how Keld viewed their father now. Keld had consistently believed in their father and his word, and after his death, Trem wasn’t so sure. Had it exacerbated at this point, that maybe their father appeared infallible to Keld, despite his grievous and glaring failure? It was beside Trem how anyone, most of all Keld, could not be let down by their father and could not blame their father for his own death. Their father wasn’t a martyr. He was just about a deadbeat, and Trem was not the least bit sorry for feeling nor thinking so.

Trem nodded mutely, feeling relieved that he hadn’t actually found Don at all, but then a rising alarm crept into him that shoved down the words that had begun to bubble up.

Keld continued, unaware of what Trem was thinking of, “Anyway, maybe with Mother’s medicine we can save Don from progressing into such a deranged state. He didn’t sound raving mad. Heck, gentle being that he calmed the horse down, but creepy though. Just hope the horse didn’t…catch anything, which means you too.”

Trem nodded hesitantly, looking away once again. “Hey uh, Keld? Would you…not mention all of this to Mother? I don’t want her to know the extent I…well, just tell her as little as she needs to hear? Please? Brother, please?” Trem made an effort to make as pleading as a face as possible, clasping his hands together like he was begging.

Keld eyed Trem, mulling it over before he answered, “I’ll do my best Trem, but a lot of this is integral. I’ll tell her you got the okay from me, and that way she won’t get so worked up.”

Trem’s eyes flashed with alarm, he could feel the anxiety twisting in his stomach like a pernicious and nasty snake. “But…” was all Trem could manage to say.

Keld waved him off, “Too many details are important Trem. She’ll know precisely what to do. This is a matter of Don’s life, and also concerns you and the horse. I’m not having something unexpected happen, do you understand me?”

Trem nodded gloomily, his eyes downcast. He’d shove his hands into his pockets, but he didn’t have any, still being in his scant boxer shorts, just as white as his brother’s. “Yeah…Yeah I do brother…”

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