Emma breathed deeply as her eyes slowly and reluctantly opened, stinging from the harsh morning light that pierced through the trees above. She did not move; her surroundings steadily took shape about her and she continued to stare upwards as her vision gradually adjusted to the unforgiving brightness. A horrible, unshakeable pain rang through the inner walls of her head, causing her to wince as she let out a soft groan. She struggled to remember how she got here but found herself unable to remember much without having the pain grow worse. Another deep breath, and the smell of fresh pine and rotting leaves quickly invaded her nostrils. Suddenly, a memory of a ghastly hand grabbing her from behind flashed in her mind and her heart quickened. Her eyes suddenly darted back and forth in a panic as she started to recall the events of the night before. Emma could remember the cold, wet hand that wrapped itself around her mouth. She could still feel the strong, bony arm that lifted her from the ground. She remembered her muffled screams and the road disappearing and then…nothing. The noise! She jolted up.
Emma found herself alone, sitting in a small clearing surrounded by tall, thin, moss-covered pines. Her head strongly objected to her rapid attempt at getting up and she found herself holding the sides of her temples as the pain pulsed over and over and over. A soft crackling and popping noise followed by the smell of woodsmoke told her there was a fire nearby. She forced herself to open her eyes again, despite her aching skull. A few feet away, the small fire seemed like it had only been lit recently; the thick slivers of birch were only now catching as the silver bark slowly started to curl and blacken from the heat. Emma looked down and found herself wrapped in a plain brown woolen blanket; small beads of water sat delicately on the outside and sharply rolled off as she shifted her weight to one side. She shivered as the wind rustled the branches of the trees above and she looked up. The sun was masked by a sea of grey clouds and the air about her had managed to keep its chilling quality from the night before.
“You’re awake!” a gruff voice from behind her called out from the treeline. “Good! I was beginning to think you’d sleep forever.”
Emma turned around, quickly following the sound of the voice, and instantly regretted it; her chilled hands once again reached up to hold her pounding head. “Where am I?” she groaned.
“You’re safe, for now,” the man crouched next to her, setting a waterskin on the ground before getting back up to check on the fledgling fire. “You better drink up. It will help with your head.”
“Wha… how did you…?” she grudgingly grabbed the worn leather bag from the ground and slowly started pouring the cool water into her mouth. “What did you do to me?”
“I gave you a tonic to help you sleep is all. You would have made a racket otherwise. Feels like death the next day. Sorry ’bout that,” he shrugged.
For the first time since she had awoken, Emma made an effort to really take note of her captor and supposed saviour. The man, now poking the fire with a stick, was dressed fairly plainly. His tunic, perhaps once a shade of bright green, was now faded and stained to a dull sage. His tan coloured trousers, hastily tucked into a pair of brown worn leather boots, had fared no better; each leg seemed to reveal a tapestry of stains from unknown origins. Nearby, a ragged cloak hung desperately from a tree branch. The owner had hoped that the hole-ridden rag would dry out, no doubt; the weather, however, seemed to have other plans. These were the clothes of a man who had spent a lot of time away from the cities, she observed. Turning back to him, she noticed a shortly trimmed beard and scraggly brown hair. It was him!
“I don’t like being followed,” he remarked as if he could tell what she was thinking. “What do you want, girl?”
“Do you make a habit of drugging people who are trying to find you?” Emma spat. “Is that what you’re known for?”
“I make a habit of not being found at all. The drink I gave you was an assurance of that. Half the county would have heard you and I couldn’t have that.” He paused and stared at her questioningly. “So, why are you looking for me, then?”
Emma hesitated and shot a look at her bag, sitting unopened on a log beside where the man was still crouched. He sighed heavily, reached over, grabbed the bag, and tossed it to her. After a few moments of rummaging through the waterlogged pack, she produced an envelope with a yellow seal.
“The council sent me to find you. They told me that I am to give you this and follow your instructions.” Emma confidently held the wrinkled paper towards the man.
He stared at the letter, then back up to her. “Did they now? And how do you know I am who ‘they’ say I am?” he asked with a slight grin.
Emma turned her gaze to the ground. “They were very clear in their…description,” she responded curtly.
He frowned, then chuckled and nodded. “Ok. That sounds about right. Let’s see.” He took the envelope from her cold hand, broke the seal, and opened the letter. He scanned it quickly, pausing for a moment before continuing and then pursed his lips before putting the letter back in the envelope. He stood up, brushing the damp earth from his pants, and tucked the envelope into his belt.
“You’re new to this, aren’t you girl?” he stared at her again.
“I’ve been working with them for a year. This is my first time in the field though. And my name is Emmaline.” she responded.
“I thought so. My name is Jeames. If you are going to work with me, you had better listen and learn. I’m a busy man and the last one they sent my way was lazy,” he mumbled as he started packing up a small bedroll nearby.
“Last one?” Emma asked confused. “What happened to the last one?”
“I’m not sure really. They’ll turn up I’m sure,” Jeames continued without skipping a beat.
Emma tossed the blanket aside and stood up, almost stumbling at first, but she managed to steady herself. The effects of the tonic were still lingering but most of the ill effects had passed; the water had worked its magic after all. After making sure she wouldn’t topple over, Emma followed Jeames’ lead and started packing up her gear. A few short moments later, there was almost no sign that any camp had even existed here and Jeames began working on dousing the small fire, spreading the dying ashes before covering them with dirt and leaves.
“Where do we start?” Emma asked, eager to get underway.
“We don’t. Right now, you are heading back to the forks. I have some business to attend to first. Wait for me there and I will send for you.”
“But I was told to follow you,” she frowned, placing her hands on her hips.
“And so you have! There’s a lot of work to be done, and I can’t do it alone. That being said, I can cover more ground on my own and I need you to go back to the inn,” Jeames answered back, giving her a piercing glance. “You were told to follow my instructions, were you not?”
Emma considered for a moment before standing up straight. “Yes,” she answered reluctantly.
“Good. Now get going. Take the path around the lake to the south. You’ll get there quicker. I would avoid taking the main road. It may be dangerous.” he grabbed his pack, throwing it over his shoulder, and started for the edge of the clearing.
Emma nodded and turned to go, but stopped herself and turned back. “Jeames?” she paused, “I remember a noise last night. Like a waterfall or an angry wind. Is that what you saved me from? What was it?”
Jeames stopped just short of the treeline and paused, his back still facing her. “Nothing, girl…it was nothing.” He stood for a moment, then suddenly darted into the trees. “See you in a few days,” he called out before disappearing entirely.
Left in the clearing by herself, Emma turned and walked the short distance to the path. The narrow, unkempt trail looked as if it hadn’t been used in a decade; the trees on either side of the small winding road bowed inward and the thick grass reached up to her knees. Though the path seemed long since abandoned, it was quiet and she made good time to the lake that Jeames had mentioned not an hour before. As she walked the shoreline of the lake, she wrapped her now mostly dry cloak around her shoulders to shelter herself from the wind that constantly whipped at her from the other side. The massive spread of clouds above still shielded the sun and seemed to be quickly marching ahead of her. The gloomy afternoon was not pleasant, but it was better than trudging through the rain and mud, she decided.
“Shouldn’t be too much longer now,” she muttered to herself. As she continued her trek down the path and past the lake, she went over the strange encounter with Jeames in her mind. She still didn’t understand what she was expected to do here. This isn’t at all what she thought it would be. All the training she had gone through had finally brought her here and now she was being sent back. Why? It didn’t matter. She was committed; she was determined to see this assignment through. Soon she would be back at the inn, eating one of Moris’ pies and having a nice hot bath. The thought made her smile and put a bit more eagerness in her step.
After another hour on the path, she finally rounded the corner which spilled back out on to the south road. Looking up, she could see the smoke from the chimney of the inn peaking just over the treetops. A few more minutes and she would back in civilization. She followed the road, curving sharply to the right and stopped dead in her tracks as she took in the sight ahead of her. There, at the forks, was smoke pouring out of the chimney, surrounded by the smoldering ruins of what used to be The Long Fork Inn.
To be continued…
Photo Credit: jeffkingston