Chapter 39: Journey To The West

One of the things I bought on my way out of town was a small cooking pot. The smells of the chicken and mixed spices (sold by the butcher in a small bag—who knew?) as we sat around the bubbling pot made all our stomachs growl.

“If I’d know you were going to buy all this stuff,” said Claire, “I would have given you a list.”

“Good reason not to tell you, then,” I muttered under my breath. Both girls looked hacked off at missing the chance to do some shopping. “Once we get to the city, you can buy whatever you want.”

“And how long is that going to take?” Claire asked, with a definite implication that no matter the answer, it would be too long.

She wasn’t wrong. Our clothes were in a pretty bad state and didn’t smell good. The food I had bought, while a marked improvement on our usual diet of rabbit, rabbit and more rabbit, would only last for maybe one or two more meals.

“Feel free to go back into town and get what you want,” I added. No one looked keen on doing that in the dark.

Everyone felt better once we’d eaten. No one had the energy to keep grumbling, and the four of them fell asleep very quickly. I was tired, but too worried to relax. We were out here on our own with no idea what we were supposed to be doing or how we were going to survive. And we would probably have to kill again.

I took out the sword I’d acquired from the blacksmith. I imagined stabbing a living, breathing being with it. My breath became ragged and my body tensed up. Cold sweat trickled down my back.

When the blacksmith gave me the sword, he also gave me a whetstone. I started stroking the blade with it, the way he’d showed me. I couldn’t match his speed without nicking my fingers, so I took it slow and steady. Even though the weapon was the cause of my distress, sharpening it was oddly relaxing and helped calm my mind.

I had told the others about my deal with the blacksmith’s apprentice and how I’d got the sword. Rather than feel jealous or annoyed that I hadn’t told them earlier, they were all excited by the upgrade to the group’s arsenal—although, owning a sword and knowing how to use it were two entirely different things.

They very much saw everything we owned as belonging to the collective. It didn’t matter who used which weapon or who carried the money. The one thing our group didn’t lack was trust. I wondered how long that would last.

The next morning, we considered going back into town to buy some supplies. Grayson and his men would be gone, so we wouldn’t run into them. With money no longer an issue, we could buy whatever we fancied. Surprisingly, Maurice pushed for us not to do that.

“I know we’ve got all this cash now, but chances are there’ll be a bigger choice and better quality items in the city. It’d be a waste to buy stuff now that we’re just going to end up chucking away in a couple of days, right?” He spoke quickly and was itching to start our journey westward. He opened up the map Claire had copied. “According to this map, the distance from Probet to Fengarad is only a little more than the distance from Probet to the clearing in the forest, so it shouldn’t take us very long to get there. The way I see it, the sooner we get to Fengarad, the better.”

The others were keen to be supportive of Maurice’s plan and agreed we should set off immediately. Having made this decision, they all turned to me, having suddenly remembered they weren’t the ones who got to decide anything.

I shrugged. “Okay. Let’s go.”

Did I think it was a good idea? Definitely not. A short detour into town to buy some basics wouldn’t have taken more than an hour or two. It made much more sense to get stocked up before setting off—we had no idea what was out there or what problems we might face—but I didn’t say anything.

In my estimation, staying hungry, uncomfortable and uncertain would keep everyone on their toes and, more importantly, easier to control.

While being on edge made people more prone to being awkward and snippy with each other, in the case of our party we had those attributes pretty much maxed out already. Complacency and overconfidence were more likely to trip us up.

Shame I didn’t take my own advice.

What Maurice said about the advantages of getting to the city was true. And had the map been to scale, it would have only taken a few hours to get there.

The map was not to scale.

The road was wide and dusty, but flat and straight. On one side were open fields, on the other, a border of trees. Beyond the trees lay the forest.

Despite the bright sunshine and clear skies, the forest emanated a dark menace. Just looking in its direction made my skin crawl, like something was looking back. The thought of what might be waiting for us behind those trees was enough to keep us walking on the far side of the road.

How did we pass the time? Maurice mentioned how Fengarad sounded Swedish, so they started speaking with terrible Swedish accents, although Dudley’s effort sounded more like Chinese. Yes, this is what passed for entertainment. They also shared various details about their lives—where they grew up, what they did in their spare time; all the usual getting to know you stuff. But in a Swedish accent. They kept this up for hours!

I say ‘they’ because I didn’t get involved in the bonding session. I didn’t care about their hopes and dreams before we ended up in this weird fantasy land, and tuned out of the conversation. Not that I looked down on whatever kinds of lives they lived back home, it just didn’t interest me.

By the time the sun had started to disappear behind us (I still found it disconcerting that the sun set in the east), we had travelled several miles yet the horizon ahead showed no signs of a city.

We made camp behind under a large tree in one of the fields, and ate the rest of the food.

The next morning we set off again, a little more subdued. With the sun beating down and our general level of fitness being about the same as the fat kid who always gets picked last in P.E., it didn’t take long before our purposeful marching was reduced to a slow shuffle. Our water skins were nearly empty and the food was gone.

I had thought we’d find some small animals we could hunt, but so far we hadn’t seen anything. There were probably some creatures in the woods, but we weren’t hungry enough to risk it. Yet.

There was some talk of heading back and getting proper supplies. It seemed like a waste of effort to turn around now, but we didn’t have many other options.

“What’s that noise?” said Flossie, tilting her head and half-closing her eyes.

We all listened and then slowly started walking into the forest towards the sound—the sound of running water.

We cautiously tip-toed past the treeline and the temperature immediately fell to a goosebumping chill. Weird animal noises echoed around us, but the rush of flowing water kept drawing us in further. After ten minutes of weaving our way through the trees, we found a shallow river running parallel to the road and we eagerly refilled our waterskins. The other good thing about the river were the fish swimming in it.

Easy pickings! Not quite.

Maurice tried using his recently acquired spear to catch our lunch. He stood with the water up to his knees, frozen in classic hunter pose. Well, other than the Batman cowl he insisted on wearing—apparently, he didn’t want the underwater world knowing his secret identity. The fish, which varied in size from tiny to arm’s length, swam between his legs, ignorant of the doom hanging over their heads.

Wait… wait… strike! The spear stabbed into the water and struck the rocky riverbed. The fish went about their business like nothing happened.

After a bunch of failed attempts, we all had a go. With the same results. Spear fishing, it turns out, is hard. We also tried sticking our hands in the water and grabbing the fish, which went about as well as you’d expect. My new sword wasn’t much help and I wished I still had my spike.

We hadn’t eaten since the night before and I had no intention of being defeated by those scaly bastards.

After several hours, I figured out a way to catch them. We used one of the blankets, held by a person at each end, and lowered into the water. Then we waited. When a fish swam over the blanket, we lifted it up. You had to get the timing right, otherwise the water would cascade out like a waterfall, providing an escape route for the fish.

Yes, it would have been better if we had a net, but we didn’t have one of those so we did the best with what we had.

Using this method, we caught six fish in quick succession. They lay on the river bank, flopping about. I had seen enough crappy tv shows about fishing to know what to do. I took my stick and hit the biggest one on the head. That’s the most humane way to quickly kill a fish. On our planet. In this world, it had rather a different effect. The fish started screaming.

Now, I’m not a fish expert, but I’m fairly sure fish aren’t supposed to scream. I hit it again, but it kept screaming and then all the other fish joined in. If you’re wondering what a fish scream sounds like, pretty much like this: Ahh! Ahhhhh! Ahhhhhhh!

My party looked horrified and ready to start screaming themselves. I went over to where our stuff was piled up and took out my new sword. I walked over to the fish and cut off their heads, one after the other. The screaming stopped.

It may seem somewhat hypocritical after all my soul-searching over killing the mice, but they were just fish, and it’s amazing how pragmatic you can become when you’re really hungry.

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