7.) The core members of my expedition in place, I started hiring the various muleteers, teamsters, boatmen, trappers, hunters, fishermen, cooks, carpenters, blacksmiths, and others needed for a safe and comfortable journey. I had no intention of suffering deprivations or hardships if I could help it. Moreover, a larger expedition is in less danger from brigands and highwaymen.
Of course, I begin every journey with such intent, and have yet to enjoy the envisioned outcome, for inevitably into every such gathering are fools, cowards, and the deranged. It usually doesn’t take long for mishaps, accidents, and misbehavior to begin. Desertion is common as these mendicants—for who else is available for a hazardous trip into the unknown?—discover the hardships of such an enterprise.
My goal is always to bring home the heart of my company, while shedding others along the way. I offer generous wages, knowing that most of these secondary recruits will never return to collect.
I was walking home after hiring a company of muleteers, most of whom I thought were probably unemployed thieves, when a crabapple dropped on my head.
Dazed, not by the impact but by the surprise, I looked up, expecting to see branches over my head. There was nothing but blue sky.
Another apple thumped against my forehead. It stung. The crabapple was green and hard. The nearest tree was at least a hundred feet away. Out of the foliage, another apple came flying. This time I ducked.
As I approached the tree, I realized it might very well be my own creation. On each trip to my Moregone cottage, I returned with a barrel of crabapples, eating them on my walks, spitting out the seeds. I like their firmness and tartness. Miraculously, worms almost never infest the Moregone variety.
The branches rustled, an undulating wave upward through the foliage. I stared up into the bewildering maze of branches and leaves. Two eyes stared out at me out of the camouflage.
“Why do you assail me?” I asked.
“To get your attention, master. ” The voice was high, but I sensed it was a boy, not a girl.
“I am no one’s master. I don’t particularly like the masters I know. I am not difficult to approach.”
“You would have shooed me away.”
No matter how I stared, all I could see was the whites of his eyes. They seemed unnaturally large, like a lemur I’d once seen in a menagerie. It was as if the rest of my attacker was part of the tree.
“Come out where I can see you,” I said.
The leaves rustled. A long, knobby branch slid down the side of the trunk, slowly revealed as a brown-skinned boy. He was small but his head was overlarge, with wide eyes. The pupils were slanted, like a cat. His fingers were splayed like a frog. I sensed that he was as comfortable upside down as he was upright.
“Your aim is excellent,” I said. “I’m impressed.”
“It is my only defense, master. Most creatures don’t like being pelted with crabapples.”
“I can see why. Well, young sir, you’ve got my attention now. What do you want of me?”
“I wish to accompany you on your journey to Ished.”
I had never heard the name, but I did no doubt he spoke of Moregone. “Why?”
“There are places I cannot go,” he said. “There are deserts and rivers and mountains.”
I suddenly understood. “Because there are no trees?”
“Yes, master. I knew you would understand. I need to be hidden, for if I am found, Ished is lost.”
“Moregone appears to already be lost,” I said.
“No, it is not lost, it is only hidden.”
“You have still not answered my question. Why?”
The boy in the tree froze and closed his eyes, and even though I was looking right at him, he seemed to disappear. The eyes opened, and I stepped back, not from fear but from the pain I saw those wide orbs.
“Cut down this tree,” he said. “Make a cart of it, and within the cart, a small box. That is all I ask.”
The tree shivered just a little and he was gone.
Hobson the carpenter knocked against the tree experimentally.
“This tree?” he said, looking confused. “It’s old and rotted in the middle.”
“Nevertheless, this is the tree I want.”
He pulled out a large knife and I stepped back. I’d pulled him out of a tavern and he was in a foul mood.
He rammed the blade into the bark and drilled down. The tree rustled and there was a scurrying sound from above.
“What was that?” Hobson said.
“A squirrel,” I said. “He’ll find another home. I want it ready by Friday.”
“Not without help,” he said.
I handed him more money than he needed, and he quieted, knowing the extra was his. I said, “I need a functional cart for a rough journey. Use whatever is left to construct storage boxes.”
A crabapple thudded onto his bald head. He looked up. Another apple struck him between the eyes.
“This cursed tree will be down before dark,” he muttered. “Though I still think it’s too rotten.”
Apples rained down on him and he stood swaying for a moment, then toppled over.
“Best leave him be, if you want it done,” I told the branches.
The tree shook, as if in laughter.