Part 9) Loden
Loden sat near the banked fire and watched as the grey light of the coming dawn crept through the woodland. Dark shadows slowly took on the familiar shapes of trees and brush. Birds sang, greeting the start of the day. Loden took a handful of twigs and placed them on the ash of last nights fire, with a slightly larger stick he stirred the pile until the hot coals laying beneath were exposed. He added fuel slowly until it started to smoulder, a warm summer breeze blew gently through the trees, causing the leaves to rustle, blowing a bit of ash across his boots. A couple of the twigs ignited, small flames rose, Loden added a few more smaller sticks then the ball of dried grass and bark Flint had prepared the evening before. Eastward, through the trees, he could see the sky had a tinge of blue.
He glanced over at his hat, which lay on his bedroll. He was waiting to see what sort of bottle of brew would appear, though it was just a bit early, soon though. He tossed a handful of larger sticks onto the fire and watched as the flames started consuming the wood, soon the flames were larger and he added another handful of fuel. Then he stood and stretched, picked up a branch and wandered over to the tree where they had hung their food supplies. He left the majority of the food where it was, hanging from a tied off length of rope that Flint kept specifically for that task. Along the same branch was their small cooking pot, Loden hooked the handle and lifted it clear, then took it over by the fire. From one of their water skins he added water to the mash within. With a wooden spoon he stirred it around a couple of times then hung it over the flames.
Glancing over to his hat, he saw that a small bottle had appeared. Quickly he threw a bit more wood on the fire and then took a look at what had appeared from his hat with the rising of the sun. The bottle was new to him, something he had not seen before. It seemed to be stone, mostly white with some grey and black flecks, a few strange characters were engraved into the bottle, but Loden could not read them, nor had he seen their like before. The stopper was sealed with wax, a sniff revealed none of the characteristic of what was within the bottle. He shrugged to himself and placed the bottle near the rest of his gear. At least it was a small one, should be easy enough to pack away, somewhere in their gear.
If it were not for his hat and the daily bottle it gifted him every morning, he likely would have lost track of the days. As it was, he and his companions had drank two bottles and now he had thirteen other bottles, most of them different from each other. That made it two eight-days since they had left Carskot, fifteen days since he had started using the hat. It made him think of Ander every morning and he would thank his dead friend for the gift of the hat.
Beside him, Asta stirred and muttered something under her breath, still asleep she turned over and threw and arm across Flint’s sleeping form. Loden smiled to himself, usually at some point through the night Asta would roll over and cuddle close to one or the other of them. They had set up their camp much the same way each evening, a small fire with the three bedrolls laid out side by side. Asta always chose to sleep between the two men, claiming it was warmer. If it was raining or seemed like it would rain through the night, Flint would put a tarp up over the sleeping area and often built a small shelter for the fire.
For someone who had done very little cross country travel in their life, Asta had adapted very well to roughing it. She had some difficulties during the first few days, but that had mostly been an issue of being inexperienced in the saddle. Now they usually rode upwards of a yateer throughout the day and she seemed to be enjoying herself as they traversed the expanse of the Linklow Forest. For that matter, Loden, if he was honest with himself, was also enjoying the journey. Each day took him further east, further from the advancing threat of the Tannican armies.
He took a moment to check on the mash, it seemed alright, he added some more sticks to the fire then went over to check the horses. They had left them in a small semicircle of moss covered stone, a natural formation, and a rope had been tied across the opening to discourage them from wandering off. He checked their hooves and brushed them down, then he gathered the rope and let them wonder around to graze for a while.
Flint gave a shout from near the fire, “You burnt breakfast again Loden!”
Admittedly, Loden was not the best cook. He had burnt their mash nearly every other morning so far this journey. He fished his pipe and tobacco pouch out of the pocket of his long coat then headed back over to the fire. Flint was up, shirtless, by the fire. Asta was sitting up looking around sleepily. Loden thumbed some tobacco into his pipe, “I was seeing to the horses.”
“It’s the same thing I’ve told you the last three times you’ve burnt the food. After you get the fire going, let it burn down to coals again, then place the pot above the fire.”
Loden nodded then stuck a twig into the fire until it was burning well at one end, then he transferred the flame to his pipe and puffed away until smoke was billowing around his head. Flint scooped out the mash into three equal portions, giving Loden the crunchier portion from the bottom of the pot. Loden did not mind though, he had spent too many days in the past without food; burnt grains were better than nothing.
After eating, the trio saw to their morning rituals, packed up their gear and gathered the horses. As had become their habit, they spent the first yat or two of the day leading the horses along the trail. When they came to a stream they stopped to fill their water skins, Flint took a bit of time to check the ground around the area, though he did not see anything to be concerned about. Three mornings previous Flint had discovered goblin tracks near a spring they had stopped by. The tracks had been a number of days old, though there had been a couple of score of goblins. Likely a hunting party, Flint had suggested. Thankfully the critters had been travelling southwest.
It had been a number of days since they had seen any sign of humans passing through the area. Fint had discovered tracks that indicated three people had passed along the trail, walking, while leading a horse. The tracks had been along a stretch of the trail for the better part of a half day and they had found a place where the group had camped. Flint estimated that the sign was three eight-days old, the last time there had been a heavy rainfall. He also suspected that there had been four people, three afoot, one riding the horse. Previous to that, the last sign of humans had been a number of abandoned dwellings they had passed during their second day of travel.
There had also periodically been sign of bears, coyotes and a lone wolf, though none of these creatures had shown any interest in them. Once they had heard a not so distant bear in the trees, but Flint lead them around the area and they had not even seen the creature. There were plenty of other animals, deer being the most common, but there were boar tracks and goat tracks as well. Surprisingly Flint had not hunted any of these, though they would have provided all meat they would have needed for the journey. Instead the ranger contented himself with birds and squirrels, saying the larger game was too time consuming to deal with. They still had meat most nights.
Near mid-day Flint led them off trail for a half yat, and they soon found themselves at the base of a towering old iron wood tree with a half dozen younger trees, of the same species, in the surrounding area. Loden could not really estimate how tall the oldest of the trees was, not from standing underneath it. He commented, “I’ve never seen one of these up close. Are we cutting it down?”
Flint gave an amused snort, “No. Not with the tools we have, not in a month of eight-days. But if we look around the area we may find some useful branches that have fallen. As well, if you dig out the hatchet and give the trunks a few solid thumps we might encourage a few branches to come down.”
Asta tied Rogue’s reigns to a nearby sapling, “Any size or length you’re looking for?”
“Gather anything you find, we can pick and choose after that.”
Flint and the priestess started wondering around the area, circling out from the largest tree. Loden retrieved the hatchet from the gear on Dandy, walked up to the largest of the iron wood trees then gave it a bit of a thump with the flat end of the tool’s head. A few birds flew off but no branches fell free. He took a look at the area he had just struck, there was a slight indentation in the bark. He tied again, with a harder strike, leaving a slightly deeper indentation and a bit a debris fell from the tree.
From nearby Flint advised, “Move around the base of the tree, give it a few whacks at different points. You might also have more luck with the small ones, they’ve a bit more give to them. Also, if any of the lower branches are in reach, you might be able to knock some clear. Though I can tell you, that hatchet is not going to cut through any of this without a lot of effort. And, you’d likely ruin it.”
“Got it.” Loden gave the tree a series of strikes as he walked around the trunk. A few branches did fall from the tree, though they were fairly small. He moved over to one of the younger trees and tried the same tactic. Some branches fell clear, he kept at it, moving from one tree to the next.
After a while, Asta called out, “Flint, I think I’ve found a larger piece.”
Curious, Loden meandered over to where she was. Both of them were looking upwards into the branches of a neighbouring pine. Flint pointed out the area they were looking at and then Loden spotted what Asta had seen. Near twenty paces up, snagged within the branches of the pine was what appeared to be the upper section of one of the iron wood trees.
Flint picked up a couple of stones and asked for the hatchet, then he climbed up the pine, as close as he could get to the iron wood and did his best to free it. It took some work, Loden and Asta moved clear of the pine as cones and dead branches started raining down. Eventually Flint shook the iron wood clear.
They spent another while searching under the trees, making sure they had not missed anything. Aside from the larger piece they had cleared from the pine, they had a bundle of branches Flint seemed pleased with, as well a sack with smaller branches and odd pieces.