a/n: Not much of an author’s note this time around, other than to say that the ending originally for this chapter sucked. I think I fixed it this time, but there might be some grammatical errors now so I reserve the right to republish this chapter at a later date.
As always, if this is your first venture into Journey’s End, I encourage you to go check out the Table of Contents and start from the beginning. And please please please let me know what you think!
Chapter 7: The Golden Woods
Lindsey and Trevor rose with the sun. It had proven to be yet another miraculous morning in Journey’s End with just enough clouds in the sky to give it character. The sweet smell of the wild grass that carpeted the plains about them tickled Lindsey’s nose, and the sun’s warmth drove away what little night chill managed to build up as they slept.
They passed on an elaborate breakfast, opting instead to nibble on some bread and dried meat as they got an early start back on the path. The countryside that enveloped them still managed to put a smile on Lindsey’s face as they walked, but something nagged at her.
“It’s a little bit boring, isn’t it?” she asked, her voice still a little groggy from sleep.
Trevor forced a chunk of bread down his throat before asking, “What do you mean?”
“It’s pretty,” Lindsey remarked. It was almost an excuse, a preemptive apology for criticizing a place that seemed above criticism. “But it’s kind of repetitive.”
Trevor looked around as if he hadn’t lived in this part of Journey’s End for ten years already. “I suppose,” he agreed. “But… Look.”
He stopped and Lindsey followed suit out of curiosity. Without a word Trevor stepped behind her and extended his arm over her left shoulder. He rested it there and when he spoke in her ear an odd buzzing ran through her entire body; a buzzing that felt so loud she was shocked she could hear him at all.
“You see that off in the distance?” he asked her.
She squinted. The sun was slowly climbing up the sky and full daylight was upon them and yet she couldn’t immediately pick out what Trevor was pointing at. Then she saw it far off in the distance. It looked almost like the plains were ablaze with a vast yellow fire, but there was no smoke and in her excitement Lindsey grabbed Trevor’s arm and turned her face towards his. “Is that…”
“The Golden Woods,” he whispered. Their faces were close, way too close and in that moment they were paralyzed by their proximity. Lindsey, incapable of speech, incapable even of movement, could not pull her eyes off of his as they ticked back and forth jumping from one of her eyes to another. She knew this was what he was doing because she was doing the exact same thing. It was involuntary, her vision making just the slightest adjustments, searching for something, for a clue, for a way past a barrier she wasn’t sure existed or, if it did exist, that she should cross it.
Finally, with a swallow, she struggled to break the silence. “How long?”
“How long, what?”
He sounded as though the wind had been knocked out of him, his voice lacking strength, body, control, or whatever it is that voices belonging to people that are not fully mesmerized are supposed to have, and somehow this allowed Lindsey to sound a little more in control of herself when she clarified her question. “How long until we get there?”
Perhaps he realized something was out of place, or too far in place, because Trevor removed his arm and the moment her fingertips no longer bore his touch Lindsey could feel the force holding them in stasis break apart and dissipate in the air. They both cleared their throats as Trevor shaded his eyes and mumbled to himself before finally answering, “Well, if we stop screwing around, we just might get there by lunchtime.”
Lindsey was already walking when she said, “Really? It’s that close?”
Trevor did a quick double step to catch up before nodding. “Yup. It’s that close.”
“What are we waiting for then?”
The Golden Woods weren’t that close, exactly. The sun had hoisted itself high in the sky and both Lindsey’s and Trevor’s stomachs were growling and long before they had reached the boundary of the forest. They had even attempted to hold off eating, if for no other reason than to force the time they reached the Golden Woods into being lunchtime in order to make Trevor’s prediction come true.
But on that front, they failed.
When Trevor finally broke down and passed out some bread and cured meat, they could see the individual trunks of the trees, but they weren’t there just yet. It wasn’t until an hour after they had brushed the few remaining crumbs from their hands that they found themselves at the entrance to the forest Lindsey had heard so much about.
“I keep saying this, I know, but it’s amazing,” she whispered. With wide eyes she peered inside at the yellow leaves and the few shafts of sunlight that lanced down to the forest floor unfiltered. She could hear the rustling of the leaves whispering ancient secrets to each other and she could smell the faint sweetness of tree sap and lingering dew. “Is it autumn?”
“No,” Trevor informed her. “It’s like this year round. It’s kinda where the name comes from.”
“You’re making fun of me.”
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
Despite Trevor’s assurances that it was mid-summer, Lindsey couldn’t ignore the autumnal feel of the Golden Woods, and she loved it.
Sara was a fan of the summer; school was out, she got to stay up late and spend entire days at the beach or the mall. Her dad was a winter person; he just seemed to love the cold weather and Lindsey wasn’t sure if he got more out of Christmas time than either she or her sister. And, for reasons Lindsey never managed to quite understand, her mother preferred spring. But it was the fall that Lindsey loved.
She loved the smell of the first crackling logs in fireplaces, and the way that smoky smell seemed to fill the air. She loved the scary movies that came on TV just in time for Halloween, and she even loved curling up with her dad on the couch to watch football every Sunday. Even now she almost tricked herself into thinking that the smells of the forest were slowly giving way to the alluring aroma of shavings from the first sharpened pencils of the school year, and of roasting Thanksgiving Day turkeys.
Autumn was like watching the world around them settle down for the night; everyone having a nice dinner and bundling up in blankets and pajamas and sharing a cup of hot cocoa before the long winter’s sleep and she loved every bit of it (except her new school, of course). And autumn wouldn’t be the same without the leaves.
Green leaves were boring, the same, over and over again, but in the fall all the trees performed some strange magic that filled their branches with paper rubies and topazes and thin, wispy scraps of gold, and they would cast these treasures down to the earth, carpeting the ground in a symphony of color.
It would always have to come to an end, though. The trees would eventually grow naked and embarrassingly shriveled, and her father (after much prodding from her mother) would ultimately rake up all the leaves and perform yet another magic trick in making them all disappear.
But here she was, at the border of an infinite autumn, and at the sight of it all she nearly forgot the strange feelings that were slowly growing for Trevor, and even of her sister who was locked away in some foreboding castle up north. She was mesmerized, enchanted in the forests spell, but Trevor managed to bring her back to reality.
“Um, Lindsey? We were planning on… you know… traveling, right?”
“Now you’re just copying what I was saying.”
“No… you’re the… copier… person,” he stammered. At this, Lindsey huffed, threw her nose high into the air, and in a great show of mock indignation stomped off into the Golden Woods.
“God, I can’t believe how gorgeous this place is,” she practically squealed after only a few minutes inside the forest. “I could live here.”
Trevor chuckled. “Actually, it’s Port Town I’m anxious to see. I’ve been wanting to visit for ages.”
“Why? What’s so big in Port Town?”
“Aside from the fact that it’s the biggest city in this part of Journey’s End?” Trevor shrugged. “There’s a builder who lives there—he’s really famous–named Enzo.”
“You want to go to Port Town to talk shop?”
“Call it professional curiosity. I mean, he only built the Asperion Tower.”
“Ooh, that sounds interesting. What’s that?”
“A tower in Asperia.”
“But it’s supposed to be really impressive.” He stooped over, picked up a stray twig from the ground, and started twirling it in his fingers as he continued. “In fact, just about anything Enzo builds is supposed to be impressive. He didn’t get famous for nothing.”
As he talked about Enzo, Lindsey noticed an apprehension mixed with the eagerness, a kind of nervousness that seemed to indicate that maybe the only thing that matched his desire to meet the boy was his desire not to. She wondered if it was just professional curiosity or if it was something else, perhaps a need to know who was better. She didn’t know Trevor long, but she knew him well enough to know that he took a great amount of pride in his building. “So,” Lindsey ventured, feeling a need to dig further, “what if he turns out to be better than you?”
Trevor laughed uneasily. “Of course he’s better than me. I don’t know how long he’s lived in Journey’s End, but it’s been a lot longer than me… What have I done? Put up some stupid looking wooden houses. Okay, yeah, I figured out the running water bit, but that wasn’t that hard, I’m sure he’s done it in a lot of places.”
“I am not.”
“It’s okay,” Lindsey assured him. “I think it’s good that you don’t like that he’s better than you at something. That just means you’ll work harder at it until you’re the famous builder.”
Trevor nodded the nod of someone who agrees, but refuses to believe anyway.
“Besides,” Lindsey added before Trevor had enough time to contradict her, “he has probably been doing it much longer than you have. Give it time. Maybe you can build the… I don’t know, the Everywhere Town Tower or something.”
This time when Trevor laughed it was genuine, almost relieved. “Sure,” he chuckled. “But don’t think I’m letting you name it, whatever it is.”
“Are you saying you don’t like the names I come up with for things now?” she scowled. “Fine then, see if I try to…”
“Okay, okay,” he relented. “I can see it now, the Everywhere Town Tower; it serves no purpose and has a terrible name, but it’s awesome anyway.”
“Lovely. Planning on putting that on a plaque right out front?”
“Has a kind of ring to it, don’t you think?” He grinned at her wickedly, and she crossed her arms over her chest in reply. But before their mutual teasing progressed any further, Trevor’s eyes widened and he pointed over Lindsey’s shoulder. “Hey, look at that!”
“Sure, change the subject. You were going to lose that argument anyway.”
“No, seriously.” He walked right by Lindsey and crouched down in front of a low bush that was just barely tucked away from the path. She tried to get a look at the shrub, but all she could see were a few trembling leaves as his arms worked deftly, concealed by his bulky rucksack.
She could hear a crunch followed by Trevor grunting in approval. “Here, try this,” he said, tossing something over his shoulder without looking back to see her. What Lindsey caught was a fruit.
It was dark pink, almost red, and almost perfectly heart shaped, with the exception of the large bite mark from Trevor. The meat inside was also pink, but much lighter. She sniffed at it and turned it around until the bite mark was completely gone, marveling at the strange shape until Trevor spoke again, this time craning his neck around to look up at her. “Afraid I have cooties or something?”
Lindsey shook her head and giggled. “No, I’ve just never seen a fruit like this before.”
“Go on and try it. I’m picking a few for dinner tonight.”
She obeyed, letting her teeth break through the thin outer skin of the fruit, crunching deep into the thick meat of it. It was cool and sweet and moist, and yet it crunched merrily as she chewed. She took another bite, thinking it tasted first sort of like a pear, then thinking much more like a very sweet apple, and finally ending on maybe a peach, but not quite.
Standing up, Trevor dusted his hands off on his pants and asked, “Well?”
“It’s good. What’s it called?”
“Companion fruit. Here, let me have another bite.”
Lindsey raised her eyebrows. “We’re sharing now?”
“You’re supposed to,” he explained to her as they both started walking again.
She handed the companion fruit over to him. “I didn’t know it was a law.”
He took a loud bite out of it, and chewed vigorously before answering, “It’s not a law, silly. It’s supposed to be good luck.”
He handed it back to her but before she took another bite she asked, “Why’s that?”
“It’s companion fruit. It’s just… I don’t know… a thing. If you share a companion fruit with a friend, it’s supposed to be good luck.” Lindsey mulled this over as she took another bite and handed the quickly dwindling companion fruit back to Trevor. “There’s actually more to it than that, actually.”
“Really, like what?” she asked.
He gulped down the mouthful he was working on and started to answer, “Well, if you believe in that sort of thing, supposedly if you…” His voice trailed off into silence, and while he was determinedly looking at the path before them, his eyes set so hard one would have thought he had glued them in position, Lindsey could still see the red creeping up into his cheeks.
“Planning on finishing that sentence any time soon?” she finally had to ask.
Trevor shook his head as though what he was about to say was the most unimportant thing in the world before he tossed the fruit back to Lindsey and muttered, “It’s… Nothing. No one goes by that old stuff anymore anyway. Stupid… It’s just good luck. Share it with a friend and you’re both supposed to have good luck.”
“Trevor…” she coaxed.
“Hey, so why don’t you tell me about Sara? I mean you’ve said a few things, but what’s she like? She’s who were going to go save anyway, right?”
“You’re doing it again.”
“Changing the subject,” she accused him, shoving the fruit back into his hands for emphasis.
“Look, you want to know the story behind the companion fruit, fine. You can find out about it from anyone not named Trevor, and that’s final.” He bit aggressively from the fruit before throwing the last few scraps into the depths of the forest and puffing his chest out defiantly.
Lindsey laughed at him.
“Now what?” he asked in exasperation.
“You’ve got some juice dribbling down your chin. It sort of ruins the effect I think you were going for.”
“Ah… see, now who’s trying to change the subject, hmm? Rather talk about my chin than your sister.”
She pushed him playfully but then said, “Oh, all right. Not as though there’s a whole lot to tell, that I haven’t already mentioned anyway. She’s my sister, and we’re about dead opposite of each other.”
“Fight a lot?”
“That’s strange. If you’re sisters, and you’re opposites, I would have thought you would fight all the time.”
Lindsey whipped her head from side to side, her curtain of black hair fanning out behind her. “Nope. I think it’s because we were so different that we never had anything to fight over. And still, she was… she was my best friend.”
“She still is your best friend, right?”
Lindsey’s mind lurched. Was what she just did intentional? Had her hopes of finding her sister diminished already to the point where she was thinking about everything in terms of was as opposed to is?
“No sense using past tense until you have to,” he added.
Stunned, Lindsey simply stared at him, and in that moment she began to believe that it was because of things like that, his ability to say something exactly like what he just said, that was behind the curious feelings she felt rumbling underneath the surface.
Lindsey eventually did talk about Sara. She began the way she often did in her own mind, focusing on how much better Sara was than she. Prettier, more popular, more active, and she half expected Trevor to interrupt her, to do the same thing her parents did on those rare occasions when she opened up to either one of them.
But he didn’t, and the curious thing about Trevor’s silence was that eventually Lindsey found that she had run out of room for comparison between Sara and herself. It wasn’t until she began into the many adventures and misadventures that she and Sara got themselves into together that Trevor became an active participant, asking what happened next, and didn’t they get in trouble for setting their Aunt Chen’s hair on fire?
In fact, Lindsey ultimately came to the realization that she was talking as much about herself as she was about Sara, and not in her typical always-highlight-the-negative kind of way and she wondered if Trevor had done all this on purpose.
As she talked, she wondered if he just knew how to talk to girls just the right way, when to be quiet, when to talk, or if it was more specific than that.
Eventually, though, the glow of the trees began to dim. The canopy above was so thick and impervious to the sky above that Lindsey could not directly tell if it was getting late or not, but the way the fire of the yellowed leaves began to dull, and the way the details of the tree trunks clustered all around them began to fade informed her that it would soon be night time.
They found a place not far off the path that was relatively clear of underbrush and laid out their bedrolls. Lindsey got the fire going, and Trevor cooked again, this time adding a few slices of companion fruit to the Hunter’s Stew.
“What do you think?” He asked hopefully.
Lindsey considered lying to him, telling him that he might have discovered the next big dish, but she didn’t. “It’s… Well…”
“It’s not very good. I’m sorry. It’s just too sweet, I think.” She worried. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, or worse, put in jeopardy whatever it was they were building between the two of them be it a friendship or something more. But Trevor wasn’t the least upset.
“Ah, well. I guess they won’t be naming a recipe after me after all.”
“Honestly, if someone named this after me, I think I might be insulted.”
“I’m here to help.”
After letting Lindsey try the Lignus spell to put the fire out a couple of times, Trevor doused it with some of the water from their skeins, and they both laid down for a good night’s sleep.
As she lay awake, staring at the now colorless network of tree branches and leaves, Lindsey found her thoughts divided. She wondered how Sara was getting on. Her imagination easily allowed Lindsey to conceive of the worst, but she willed her thoughts to happier possibilities; maybe Sara was just being kept as a guest. Maybe she was being treated to all sorts of luxuries, after all, she didn’t do anything wrong, there was no point in punishing her.
But Lindsey also found her thoughts wondering to the boy sleeping only feet away from her. She rolled over and could just barely make out the blackish-gray lump that was Trevor and just the thought of him in the still silence of the forest night made her heart kick into overdrive. Something was happening there, she could feel it. What about that look they shared this morning? Or the companion fruit, what was so terrible that Trevor couldn’t say?
Her objective thoughts faded into unexplored hopes, the kinds of things Lindsey rarely if ever dared to consider, even if she frequently desired them. These were the kinds of things she knew would never happen to her; heart tugging movie kisses and fairy tale endings. And because they were so improbable, because they would never happen to her, whenever she did sense them coming on she always pushed them away. Fantasy was nice, but the vacuum it left in its aftermath was usually too much to bear.
But on that night, she didn’t bother to push. On that night it was her cynicism that she kept at bay, letting all the picture perfect scenarios play out in her mind over and over again in a million different ways until she drifted quite happily to sleep.
When she awoke she wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but she knew most definitely it was not morning for everything was so dark that she was hardly sure she even opened her eyes.
Blinking, she eventually was able to force dark amorphous shapes into being; a bush of wild harvest berries over here, a tree trunk over there, and the still sleeping Trevor almost close enough for her to reach out and touch.
But what woke her up? She had no urge to relieve herself, that was certain. A quick moment’s panic froze her as she thought maybe something was crawling over her, but when she failed to feel even the tiniest prickle, she was confident enough to do a quick frisk over herself to be sure that nothing was indeed there.
Then she heard it.
It sounded like someone walking only whoever it was was covered in chains. It was far off, she could tell, but she could also tell that it was coming closer, the slow, methodical chink-chink-chink growing steadily louder.
She sprung up from her bedroll and dove toward Trevor but something tripped her up and she barked her knee against the coarse forest ground. Reflexively she saw her book lying open behind her, and she silently cursed herself for leaving it there in the first place.
Then a terrifying thought struck her. Why could she see her book? It was supposed to be far too dark for her to do so, and yet she could see more than just the outline of its shape; faint glints of gold along the slivers of cover, and old yellowed pages.
There was a light, but from where? She looked up, and a ways up the path she could see a dim orange glow making its way right for them.
“Trevor!” she barked in a harsh whisper as she tried to shake him awake. “Trevor!”
He responded blearily. “What? Seriously… I know it’s not time to…”
“Shh!” Tendrils of panic began to snake around her, squeezing at her heart and forcing it to pound harder and faster against the encroaching constraints. “Someone’s coming!”
“Trevor!” she snapped, her whispers now bordering on screams, and the sheer urgency of her voice jolted him awake.
“Where?” he whispered back. She pointed to the orange glow that was now only a few dozen feet away; any second now, and whoever it was would be able to see them. Still, crouching low, Lindsey grabbed Trevor’s hand and tugged him towards the source, morbid curiosity overpowering the primal fight or flight alarms ringing in her head.
Again her feet kicked the book and her attention was redirected from their midnight visitor to the tome’s ancient looking pages and the words written upon them. There was a new passage, and in the flickering light she could just barely make it out:
Conceal: If being found is undesirable, simply fail to be anything anyone is looking for.
“Lindsey, what are you doing? We got to get out of…”
“Conceal,” she interrupted him, and with that one word, Trevor fell silent. She looked over towards him, but he was gone, replaced instead by a low companion fruit bush. Lindsey, too, was in fact no longer there either, at least that’s what her eyes told her.
Her arms were now branches, her fingers, merely twigs off of which wild harvest berries hung. Though it didn’t feel like it, her spider silk dress was now replaced with a full adornment of sharp, dark green leaves. Even the book was gone, now only a twisted and gnarled patch of unearthed roots.
It was then that Lindsey again noticed that terrible noise.
She immediately looked up, images of Marley’s ghost flooding her head; eternal chains draped off of an emaciated figure wrapped in a spectral shroud, moaning the discordant moan of the forever damned.
But the first thing she actually saw was the lantern, thick and heavy, swinging from its own weight, the dancing flame of the candle inside casting its light through the dusty pains of glass that imprisoned it, glinting off of the lantern’s spider like frame in brassy hues.
The lantern was held aloft by a massive hand the size of a baked ham wrapped in black steel, and it didn’t take long for Lindsey to determine that the owner of both the lamp and the hand was himself unreasonably large. Perhaps it was their squatted vantage point, or the fact that fear pumped through her veins overtaking the blood that was supposed to be there, but she could have sworn that this beast of a man stood well over seven feet tall.
She could also tell that the metallic noise was obviously coming from his smooth black armor that covered him head to toe. With each step he took the obsidian colored plates clanked and rattled against each other, melding into menacing chords in a deadpan rhythm. One-two-three-four, chink-chink-chink-chink.
The most terrible thing, though, was the thing’s helmet. At least Lindsey hoped it was a helmet because if that blackened skull with horns and wings sprouting from its hairless pate was actually its head, she would simply go mad right then and there.
And still it drew closer, close enough to where Lindsey could hear its tinny breath, almost smell it. She imagined the stench of rotting flesh wedged between pitted, yellowed teeth and she was beginning to taste the bitter, acidic bites of bile in her mouth when all of a sudden the thing stopped right in front of them.
No, she thought. Please no, you can’t see us, just please, keep walking, keep going, there’s nothing here to…
But her own thoughts were interrupted by a new sound, an alien sound, one that completely eluded her understanding until it came to her. He was sniffing the air.
But he can’t smell us, that’s impossible, people can’t just sniff out other people. But then another, more horrifying thought struck her, he can smell the campfire. Oh God no, please no, he can smell the cooking from the night before. I can smell the cooking from the night before so he has to be able to…
And then he stopped sniffing, and for a moment Lindsey thought he was just going to move on, the sigh of relief she was planning on letting out already building up in her chest when he dropped low and swung his lantern around. At first he held it away from them, looking deep into the forest on the other side of the path, and then he swung back around towards them and Lindsey was staring straight into his eyes.
They were human eyes as opposed to the hollowed out eye sockets she was half expecting, but this provided very little relief. Despite being the eyes of a person and not some strange monster, they were still cold and cruel and so dark a shade of brown they looked nearly black.
She could now smell his real breath, not the stench of decaying flesh as she imagined, but bitter and rank all the same. Still he inched closer, his eyes scanning where she and Trevor were sleeping only moments earlier, looking, she knew, for the tell tale bit of evidence that they were still near, still trembling in fright as they hid from him, and Lindsey realized she was holding her breath, afraid that even the slightest movement or sound would break the spell that concealed her from this gargantuan man in armor.
Just when she was going to lose it, to break, to run for her life like some wild animal that knows it relied on its camouflage a moment too long and is now relying on the last remaining ounces of energy draining from its legs to deliver it from certain death, he stood.
The great man shook his head and grunted something unintelligible and continued walking up the path. Chink-chink-chink-chink.
Yet neither Trevor nor Lindsey dared to move. They didn’t even dare to whisper to one another until after the light from the lantern had gone completely, again bathing the two of them in the near perfect darkness of the forest’s canopied night.
“What was that?” Trevor gasped, and as he did so he immediately looked like Trevor again, or at least his silhouette did.
“I don’t know. I thought you were the one that knew all about Journey’s End.”
“Yeah, but… And what did you do?”
“No, what did you do? Was that a spell?”
She could not see his face in the darkness, but she could hear an accusatory tone creep into his voice, and even though his words did not betray as much, Lindsey began to feel that Trevor blamed her for the visitor.
It took a long while for them to calm down, and even longer for them to work out some sort of sleeping arrangement. That thing was definitely out looking for them, and neither Trevor nor Lindsey thought it a good idea for them to both be sleeping at the same time anymore.
Lindsey, shaking now in the aftermath of so much adrenaline and fear draining from her system volunteered to stand the first “watch” as Trevor called it. She was far too addled to sleep anyway, even volunteering to stay up the rest of the night.
“No,” he said grimly. “You’ll need to sleep too. We’re going to hit the road pretty hard tomorrow, and if you’re tired, it’ll only slow us down. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend another night in this place, and if we push it, we just might make it to Port Town by nightfall.”
Thus Lindsey acquiesced, keeping a watchful eye on the darkness that enveloped them, jumping at every little sound that assaulted her ears. She was so on edge that it was almost a relief when she finally woke Trevor up and crawled into her bedroll.
Try as she might, though, she could not fall asleep. She could see the stranger clad in black steel lurking between the army of shadowy tree trunks, stalking them, waiting until neither was paying attention to pounce. Even when she closed her eyes she could still see him, his spider-like lantern, his hideous helmet, and those cold, cruel eyes, all of it painted on the back of her eyelids.
Indeed, she had yet to shake the nightmarish images when the morning’s light had come to signify their second day in the Golden Woods.