VIII: The Garden

This is a new addition to a tale (the tale, really) that had lain dormant for several months. If you’d like to catch up, you can start here.

~

By the time the children had scampered back to the cemetery gates they were short of breath and nearly frantic with fright. How close they had come to their persecutor Herling, how near to that murderous goblin with the skulls dangling from his staff! And to think John Mus had led them straight into such a pickle. Come to think of it, where was John Mus and why had he not come to the meeting?

Mills and Gramm crept out through the still open iron gate. “Here, let’s go slower back to the barn. There might be people on the main road, and I don’t want to attract any attention. We’ll go quietly as we can,” said Amelia. Gramm would have preferred to keep running, but he was too frightened to argue. When things are bad, you trust your big sister.

It was good that the children did cross the field stealthily. As they neared the far edge of the field, which bordered the road into ToadChapel, they heard harsh voices bickering. Keeping their heads low, Mills and Gramm sneaked up behind the low stone wall beside the road and peered into the barnyard across the way.

Near to the barn where they had spent the first part of the night stood three nasty goblins arguing with one another. Two carried long sharp spears with wicked pointed heads, while the third bore a stout little bow and a quiver full of arrows. Though their conversation was hard to follow, it seemed that the one with the bow was urging the others to search the barn.

“Might be tools inside. Metal tools made of iron. Leather. All kinds of goodies,” they heard him say in his gnashing voice. “There ain’t nobody on this road and we don’t need to stand ‘ere guarding it from nobody.”

“But we’s supposed to keep a look-out for them human kids, too. They might be on the road,” said a one of the goblins with a spear. “The dwarf said they ain’t in town, and they ain’t in the woods, so maybe they’s somewhere in between. Well, here’s in between. We catch ’em sneakin’ around and Grimlock’ll take care of us. We’ll be sleeping in the cave with Clobber and the lads. Stick with Grimlock, I says, and we’ll make out just fine.”

“Who’s protectin’ us, I say? ‘Ere we sit by this barn, when who knows but pinkskins could come by any minute. We’s too close to ToadChapel town. We oughta get back in the woods where it’s safe and dark,” said the third goblin.

“The woods won’t be safe for us if Grimlock catches us slinking off!” snapped the second of the guards.

After a good deal more argument back and forth, which consisted mainly of the three goblins shouting at one another and calling each other names, the bowman seemed to win his point. Apparently greed for metal tools, which goblins can not produce themselves, overcame the ambition and cowardice of the two other greenskins. The guards moved around to the front of the barn and pushed the door open. They entered and were heard no more.

“Mills, they’ll find our apple cores and know we were there tonight!” whispered Gramm urgently. “They’ll summon Clobber and the boys and search the farm until they find us!”

“Then we better not be here when they do,” replied Mills. “Come on, it’s time to get moving.”

~

The children were in a fix. Gramm was surely right that the goblins would start a search once the evidence of their dinner was found, but they were surrounded all about with the goblin-patrolled road, the goblin-infested forest, and, behind them,the graveyard from which they’d just fled. And off to their right, toward ToadChapel, across the little field given over to weeds, was a wall that reached far over their heads.

“We can climb that wall!” Said Gramm, sounding more courageous than he felt.

“We cannot. It’s too high,” replied his sister.

“Very well, I can climb that wall,” said Gramm, and he scooted off in a kind of hunched over run that made him look more like a goblin than a human boy. His sister stamped her foot and gave a most unladylike snort, and she set off after her brother in a sprint.

By the time Mills caught up Gramm was standing at the foot of the wall where a dead tree limb overhung it from the other side. “What now, bird brain? We’ll be seen out here,” said Mills.

“Give me a boost. We’re going to use that branch to get over the wall,” said Graham. He was looking up, judging where best to grab hold, wiping his hands together.

“It’s going to break as soon as you put your weight on it! And what about me? What am I supposed to do?”

“I’ll reach down and pull you after me once I’m up,” Graham answered her calmly.

“You’re fooling yourself! It’s a dead branch. It will never hold us both!” hissed Mills.

“Well, you’d better hope you’re wrong! There’s a goblin crossing the road from the barn and headed for the graveyard. I’ll bet he’s going to report what they found to the important ones meeting with Herling!”

You can probably guess the rest. Graham was able to reach the branch with Mills’s help, he managed to haul her up behind him, and the old dead tree limb held their weight, though it creaked and groaned in protest. They scrambled over the crumbling wall and found themselves… where?

The children looked around to see a wild area enclosed by a wall on all sides. Well, perhaps not quite wild, they thought as they peered more closely at the bushes, trees, and rank grasses that sprung from the dirt in irregular patches. Instead, here all the plants seemed dead and very, very old. The brittle stalks of a stout shrub broke in Gramm’s hand, loud in the quiet night.

“Ahem,” said someone behind them.

Both kids whirled around, but saw only the dead plane tree that had borne them away from the danger outside the wall.

“Ahem,” said the tree a second time. And then an old bent, bearded man in a hooded cloak like midnight stepped out from behind the tree, as if he had been waiting there all along.

“What do you mean, sneaking up on us like that? Where did you come from? You weren’t beneath that tree when we came down it. And where is this place? It’s awful. Everything’s dead. We’re hunted by goblins and evil men, our friends are in danger, and all we’ve had to eat was apples,” said Mills in a torrent of words and emotion. There may even have been a tear or two.

“And a bit of cheese,” added Gramm.

The hooded figure’s long white beard shook a little, as if in gentle laughter. He seemed an odd sort of fellow, prowling about in the night in such a shabby place, but there was something undeniably noble about him, too. He leaned upon a long staff and carried a heavy leather-bound book.

“Let’s start with the most important thing first. We’ll find something for you to eat. I believe I have some olives and some wine around here somewhere,” said the strange man.

“We’re too little for wine. We can’t have it,” said Gramm.

“Hmm. So you are,” said the man in the dark cloak. “We’ll see what we can find for you, then. Come on, there’s a place nearby I have a fire going.”

Of course, the children were suspicious and afraid, and they had plenty of unanswered questions, but they were also desperate, and so they set off after him as he picked his way through the tall, thick underbrush. There seemed to be no track at all, yet the man moved with certainty through the bush. The enclosed wilderness had not seemed that large, yet they seemed to follow endlessly after the bearded man. From time to time bits of crumbling masonry and lumps of carven rock could be seen, always with vines and moss and so forth growing densely upon them.

Gramm was just on the point of whining when there appeared a light up ahead, and they popped out of the brush into a small clearing. A bright little fire danced within a ring of stones.

In the firelight the man seemed straighter and taller, and more regal, even as he awkwardly trundled three stout rounds cut from a tree into the clearing for them all to sit upon.

The man presented the children olives and clear cold water from a stream that ran alongside one edge of the clearing, and, for awhile, Gramm and Mills simply ate and rested.

The fire seemed to glow with a kind of double flame, both the familiar warm glow of campfires all over and a colder, brighter, whiter glow that danced always just outside the reach of the senses. When Mills and Gramm tried to look right at it, they saw only the cozy yellow flame that warmed them, but if they let their attention wander, they would seem to glimpse this rarer flame on the periphery of their vision.

Trees, bracken, and briars grew thick and high around the clearing, and here the children could see that the vegetation was lush and healthy, though it seemed no less ancient for that. Indeed, the vines and limbs and branches of the plants were so healthy they seemed to sway, dash, and caper, forming themselves into fantastical shapes that suggested men, horses, wild beasts, and more. Quickly the scene began to take on greater definition and energy. The vines and branches formed themselves into a little army of nasty shapes and swarmed around the shadows cast by the children. Then shadow cast by Gramm rose up (though Gramm himself did not) as a mighty knight, courageously fighting back the growing horde of monsters. His sister’s shadow flailed her arms behind him, to no avail. Just as the knight was about to be overwhelmed, Mills’s shadow spread her arms and the fire surged higher. The creatures made of vine and leaf withdrew their assault from the two dark figures and became nothing but plants once more.

“What was that?” asked Mills. “What sort of horrid place is this?”

“It’s the Garden of the sophotasters,” said Gramm.

“What? How do you know that?” asked his sister, unconvinced. “I’ve never seen this place and we’re not a mile from home.”

“You said there were statues in the Garden like we saw out in the forest today. Well, I saw one by the tree we climbed in on, and there are more back in the brush,” answered Gramm. “I’m sure this strange old man is one of the sophotasters, aren’t you, and this is your garden?”

“Hmm, I suppose I am, and I suppose it is. I don’t wonder you’ve never found this place, child,” said the strange man, looking at Mills. “The Garden lies very near to ToadChapel, and elsewhere too, though it can be very hard to find, and harder yet to enter. Which brings me to my questions: who are you, and how did you get into the Garden?”

“Wait right there, mister! Who are you?!” shot back Mills. “Thank you for the olives, but we’ve had quite a night and quite a day and I want to know who I’m talking to. Please.”

The man seemed to draw himself into himself somehow, and worked his jaw as if chewing the words he was about to speak. “Well. That’s quite a way to be addressed in my own home, after it’s been invaded and disparaged, too. But it seems you’ve had a rough time of it and you did get in, which says something about you, so I’ll answer you. I am Holos, called a sophotaster, or the sophotaster. This is my Garden, in that I planted most of the things that grow within the Garden’s walls, though in another sense these things were always present, and I only brought them into the light and nurtured them. It is enough for me to warm my hands by its glow. You can see it, can’t you?”

“See what?” said Mills and Gramm together.

“The double flame,” said Holos. “The flame within. It illuminates all and does not burn.”

“I seemed to glimpse a white flame, but when I looked directly at it all I saw was a normal old fire,” said Gramm. “But I saw such pictures cast upon the trees behind me, and I thought I saw myself as I ought to be. I was fighting to protect Mills, then she spread her arms and the tree monsters fled from her.”

“Hmm,” said Holos, chewing his words again. “The pictures can be misleading, if you don’t know how they’re made. It’s rare that individuals cast any shadow at all.”

“Yes, but Gramm was just sitting there, while his shadow was battling the trees. I was sitting there, too, as if I were watching a play on a stage, with myself as one of the characters.”

“The fire does not cast the shadows of your body, but illuminates the soul itself,” said Holos. “Having seen what the fire revealed of your spirit, Mills and Gramm, I offer you my help in your distress.”

“There were some chickens,” began Gramm.

“We ate the chickens, my friends and I,” interrupted Holos. The children snapped their jaws shut and eyeballed one another.

“A dwarf named Herling has named us outlaw and is harassing our mother,” said Mills.

“Herling is a fool and a coward who is no doubt dancing on the puppet strings of another. He’s dangerous, but he’s not the real danger,” replied Holos.

“We were supposed to meet John Mus, and he didn’t show up. He led us straight into danger,” cried Gramm.

“You can’t count on John Mus,” said Holos.

“He is a villain, I knew it,” snapped Mills.

“On the contrary, he is a genuine hero, who cares nothing if he is thought a villain. You cannot count on him, because he is utterly dependable. If John Mus could have kept his promise, he would have. I fear the worst for him,” said Holos. “Now, what kind of trouble have you found yourself in that has cost my friend his liberty?”

The children looked at each other, then Mills spoke. “In the forest, there’s an old statue, just like the ones in your Garden. Old and weird, but beautiful. A tiny stream runs beside it. This morning we were in the forest, and the stream had been dammed. There was a goblin standing guard. We don’t know why.”

“What were you doing when you climbed the wall to the Garden? That is not an easy thing to do,” said Holos.

“We were running from goblins. And men. We had gone to meet mister Mus in the cemetery, but instead we found Herling meeting by moonlight with a horrible old goblin with skulls hanging from his staff. We didn’t have anywhere else to go, so we climbed over the wall on a branch from an old tree,” painted Gramm.

“Oh sir,” cried Mills, grabbing at Holos’s sleeve suddenly, “may not the goblins follow us into the Garden? They might have seen us slip up that tree and might be even now prowling through the brush in search of us. Can’t we douse this fire and find a better place to hide?”

“Mills, I could not put this fire out, even if I wanted to,” said Holos. “But do not worry. That tree would not support the weight of a goblin, not ever. And that wall will prove too tall a climb for that sort. And they would not find a gate if they looked for it, because the Garden does not wish to be found by those that mean mischief within its walls. You and your brother are safe, for now. And so I think it best that you get some rest with what’s left of the night, and we shall see what can be done in the morning.”

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