13.) Tomber’s sign was carved on the side of a giant pine tree that loomed over the Prince’s Road. I was puzzled, for there didn’t seem to be a turn-off. Behind the huge trunk were two parallel lines, the barest hint of a wagon road.
Also behind the tree was a campsite, with a single occupant hunched over a fire, cooking a meager meal. He stood, unafraid. “My name is Horense. You are welcome to stay for the night. It will soon be raining hard. The trees boughs will give you shelter.”
The caravan soon circled the tree. Miraculously there was room for all of us. When it started to pour down a deluge, few drops reached us. Toug cooked the last of the dragon meat and I invited the stranger to eat with us.
After the meal, most of the party went directly to their tents or their wagons to sleep. The rain was a respite. During the meal I announced we would stay for a day to do repairs and to rest.
Soon enough, Horense and I sat alone by the fire.
He was a strange looking man, with most of his bulk in the top half of his body, two scrawny legs that seemed bow legged holding him up. The moment I saw him, I knew who he was.
It is said that the Toad King meets you at the crossroads at those moments of your life when you are the most vulnerable. Despite his ugliness, he charms you, disarms you, and when the meeting is over, you find that you have been stripped of everything of value, except the tale—of how you met the Toad King. For meeting the Toad King, strangely enough, was considered good luck. It meant the road you were traveling on was the one you were supposed to be on.
He was rotund and appeared to be missing a neck. His eyes were so wide it was as if they were on either side of his head. When he talked to you, he faced you squarely, and the two eyes angled inward as capturing you. I half expected a tongue to lash out and suck me in. I was sure who he was from the first moment I saw him, and I was also certain it was not a coincidence.
“I would ask you not to take anything,” I said.
He looked at me shocked, then he dropped the façade and shrugged by lifting the top half of his body. “So you do recognize me. You needn’t worry. I would not steal from someone who has fed me such a magnificent supper. Nor would I insult Evard the Just.”
“Merely Evard Just—it is a name, not a title.”
He tried to look at me sideways, then turned his entire body to accommodate. “You don’t remember, do you? We’ve met before.”
“I suppose creatures of the Abyss don’t forget like the rest of us.”
“Indeed…we ‘creatures of the Abyss,’ as you call us, forget very little. Then again, most of us have very little to remember.”
“But not you,” I ventured.
“I am cursed to remember everything.”
I suddenly realized my opportunity. Never make deals with the Toad King, the saying goes. But I didn’t see any harm in asking.”
“You remember when I first arrived in these lands?”
He bobbed his head, or rather, his entire body.
“Perhaps you could fill in some blanks in my past,” I said. “I appear to have forgotten a few things.”
“Would you believe what I told you?”
I hesitated. This was the Trickster God, who led men astray for the enjoyment of it.
“I trust that I would know you were lying.”
He weaved back and forth and I realized it was the same as a shake of the head. “Your life story is the story you tell yourself, Evard the Just. Nothing I can say will change that for the better.”
“Evard,” I corrected.
“…the Just, for that is who you are. But apparently, you’ve chosen differently. As I said—that is the story you want. Keep it, for it serves you well.”
“Then why are you here? Is there something you want to tell me?”
He laughed, a wet sound, like he was rolling water in his throat. “Don’t believe all the stories. Sometimes a chance meeting is just a chance meeting.”
“Pardon me if I don’t believe that.”
He stared into the fire for a time, then said softly. “If this meeting was destined, it was not my doing. I had thought I was on an innocent journey to the Twelfth Principality where I keep my home.
“No, our meeting was arranged by someone else. I believe the Mirror God is stirring—which is never a good thing. So the question isn’t so much what I’m intending, but what are you intending, Evard the Just? Why are you turning from the Prince’s Road?
I was sitting with the Toad King. It seemed senseless not to tell him the truth.
“Moregone has vanished.”
“It has?” His big eyes blinked slowly, then he bobbed. “It has been a long time since I visited. I suppose that is possible. So you intend to find it and somehow bring it back?”
I didn’t answer at first. To be completely honest, despite what I’d told Marston, I wasn’t sure what my intention was. Part of me wanted to return to the land of my origins—but part of me knew that wasn’t where I belonged.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just don’t think is should be forgotten like that, as if it had no meaning.”
He stared into the fire quietly, and I finally realized he had no intention of answering.
I felt a surge of anger and almost reached out to shake him. At that moment, a huge pinecone came down from the branches above, landing in the middle of the fire and sending sparks into our faces.
The Toad King stood and stared upward, unblinking. I followed his gaze but could see nothing, except…there was a brief flash of something brown moving, as if a branch of the tree had detached itself and moved upward.
The Toad King looked over at me. “Well, this has been a most interesting day. First I’m fed a meal of dragon meat and now this! What other surprises does your little caravan hold?”
“What do you know of Seed?”
“I’m sure when the time comes, Evard the Just, you will remember and do the right thing. And now, I really must get some sleep. I will be off before the rest of you wake up, I suspect. I do hope I meet you again and hear the end of this story.”
He put out a hand that was as wide as it was long, and I shook it.
After he entered his tent, I checked my pockets and then shook my head ruefully. If the Toad King chose to steal from us, there was little I could do to stop him.
Late that night, as the fire was reduced to coals, I looked toward the Toad King’s tent and it was gone.