Three Men Walking East
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The first moon of Spring had risen above the water, the snow, the trees and the clouds to come. It was silver like moons are, and Eden could see the silver like he could, and in the silver he saw the end of a long time in a dark place. For the silver was bright, and it was growing brighter.

Before the moon had risen, snow had fallen some nights ago. Its mother storm would later be charted by the Reverend Mothers as the last snowfall West of the Riverlake of that year; it was soft, blue, and devoid of intemperate temperament. This was omen; the ice was loathe to depart from its the soil and the loving water, without objection. Eden remembered old snowfalls as a child, when the warm breast of his mother was more than the passing sweet of memory singed by quiet. Those storms were thick, frozen, and unyielding. Their howling gales were liable to bowl over those few greatest pines that the West still had to offer.

“Today the winter is slithering away like a shadow, or a wildcat, or something guilty,” Eden thought.

And so it was with the backwards pressure of an ended age they pushed their boots East, to water and to home. They crushed the last remnants of the ended season underfoot, giving way to the wet dirt beneath. East was through the trees, over the water, around the mountains, and then the ash. So, had his mother said, was the whole of it made ash. The fire of old fighting had tinged an old place with a black sorrow. Eden thought of it as they walked towards it, listening to the soft wind carry life to the death of those dry moors.

Herman, Eden’s father, was leading them deep East, deep into the trees; they all wore thickest coats dyed in old, English rain.

Northman was at the man’s side; a short time ago he would’ve been elated to be so close and of such significance to their guide. Now his eyes watched Herman with two different minds, as one watches a stacked stone teetering on the edge of a wide chasm, or a mother blind to her newborn child. Herman’s own eyes were terminally on the cusp of lidding, beneath the horizon and below the sun, and devoid of any warmth Eden had once known. That which had once had affixed itself to and been enlightened by the fruit and vigor of love, health, and mortal victory was, in this time, collapsed under a monstrously heavy pound of flesh.

Eden watched the two of them, his father and neighbor, set into their new and final path, as he guided their grand bison Bringsjoy along the top of the snow. His glittering hooves padded as a cat’s paws on hay or the battlefield, and the impressive load of accoutrements stacked upon his mighty shoulders stood almost as tall as a man.

“I have never been so deep in among the trees,” Eden said. His father brushed warm snot from his nose, shaking his lantern. He responded, “Do not think the deepest is where you will find the best. But this life I look for you is un-common on the plain further South. We will find more of her where we must tread deeper and harder, over flown water, and a flown sparrow from that place.”

“If you would believe it,” Northman said, “It’s the better place for taking game in the valley. On one of our hunts we could chart a whole new patch of Greenhands and with but a day of the hard march and sharpening our Embers, send word for two or even three whole deer out of reaches North we’d spend upwards of a year stalking in the devilbrush.”

“It isn’t usually so good,” Herman said, “But sometimes it is, and it can be a beautiful time.”

They continued, and before they began to see the light of high fires in the distance, they heard the beat of a great drum come alive in the dark, like Eden had only heard in stories of old war. “What does that mean?” He asked.

“We have been noted,” Herman said, “And the eyes that have been on us may turn to knives if we are not careful. Just be calm. All they want us to know is that they’re watching.”

Eden began to perceive the Watergate of the Riverlake, where the East had met the West, and where a family titled the Ringfishers had made their home. They started to make out the form of the Watergate itself, cut from the wood that surrounded them and supplemented by man, shot and cannon, and the high watchtower that guarded the crossing they had sought out.

They parted from the trees, and amidst the fortifications were over a dozen men clad in the style of their families – most, bearing signs and sigils of the Ringfisher house, but more than a few sporting linens of red, black, and gold, sashes indicating fellow travelers of Northman’s own people, and other adjacent families. Many of the rifles and blades that they carried, arranged in most colors seen, were adorned with sketches of histories and gods, and when Herman looked at them Eden could see in his eyes a glint of hateful, despairing envy. The man at their head, equipped with a great spear, a bow, and a quiver of sparkling arrows spoke in a loud clear voice, “Please name yourselves, those Westward, and announce your intention!”

Northman answered. “I am Northman Redhair, a citizen of the court, and warden of these two men.” He gently gripped Herman by the arm and brought him forward. “Herman █████████, murderer, and Eden █████████, unblooded. We come seeking passage across the Riverlake, compact with roots across the water there, and a safe journey home!”

The bowman squinted. “Herman █████████?”

Herman reluctantly rose his hand in greeting. “They’re all with me, Hammer.”

Hammer the bowman’s disposition quivered as Eden saw his eyes move, from that of a murdering stranger’s face, to that of his captain. “Father! It’s been too long.”

Herman flinched at his old title, but he inclined his head neverthless. Hammer went on, “I have to say, I was terribly sorry to hear what happened. All of us were. Great mourning was had. We only wish you could’ve been here.”

“Me too.”

Hammer addressed Northman once again. “Where is your seal?”

Northman released Herman and fumbled for a moment with the contents of his satchel, before removing a small strip of parchment from its depths and splaying it before the firing line for them to see. The bowman squinted and nodded at the two men guarding the camp’s launch, on their level, who began to unleash a small skiff upon the water. Hammer’s soldiers, who had already unclenched their guns, began to remove themselves to their previous activities, while Hammer himself said, “Under the mark of god, and our love for you and your work, you may take your safe passage to and from the banks. I simply ask for the discretion and consideration I know you to maintain.” At that point, he left.

They approached the launch. Eden and Herman climbed into the ship with the rowers while Northman came up to Bringsjoy and whispered an appeal in his ear. Bringsjoy blinked and snuffled and, as the five of them pushed off, waded into the water, creating a pillar of steam and rendering the stack of tools and attributes supported by his back the only evidence of his existence, aside from the roiling nature of the water where he paddled.

While crossing the riverlake, Eden could see the moon unobstructed. He could also see the stars, a celestial rainstorm scattering itself beyond the sky, and he gazed towards the congregation thickest and furthest from any place they had ever known, where the colors began to give way to the proximity of their association into a gold perhaps blinding were the world a hair nearer to that cosmic settlement.

“Where is mother?” Eden asked his father.

Herman, who had been trapped in his own thoughts, looking beneath at the plain beauty of some haddock streaming through the water, became startled at Eden’s inquiry, until he realized that his son spoke of heaven. “How many months is it?”

“Three, plus one-quarter,” Northman put in. Herman gave no note to it. When he failed to answer, Northman spoke for him: “It’d be more accurate to name the places she isn’t. She’d be hard pressed to find her way anywhere, in her state.”

The collective quiet of the other occupants and the lapping of the water against the ship gave Northman ample time to consider the sensitivity of his response. “I mean- your mother was a strong woman. If anybody could find her way anywhere, it’s her.”

“It's fine, North,” Eden said, looking back up at the sky. “I asked.”

Herman looked at his son. “I think about them too.”

“I know you do.”

The rest of the boat ride was silent. Eventually they reached the far bank, where one of the rowers hopped out and grounded the ship, securing it to a small, dingy stake in the ground. Eden and Herman stepped into the mud, and Bringsjoy climbed out of the lake to douse them all in hot riverwater. After shaking themselves off, the three men prepared to press deeper into the darker woods that lay ahead of them, while their guides struck up their pipes. Herman took his lantern back up and they continued on.

After hiking through the brush for a time they came to a thicket. Herman went up against a short, crooked tree with leaves that were radiant against the light of his gold. “This will do,” he said.

Herman set down their light while Eden and Northman removed some of their tools – an Ember, a larger axe runed for woodcutting, and Eden’s hunting knife. Northman gave them space as Eden brought the equipment to his father.

Herman put the axe aside and pointed out a part of the base to his son.

“Now we work,” he said.

Using his knife, Eden made a small incision to one of the Greenhand’s thickest roots. Blood of the tree began to swell at the opening, and spilled out in a quiet tear.

“Give me your hand,” Herman said.

Eden gave Herman his knife and his hand; Herman turned over Eden’s hand, to his palm, and quickly slashed the length of it. A hint of red ran up to the wound and trickled out. He repeated the movement over his own hand, knelt in the snow, tapped his son’s knee so that he might as well, and pressed their wounds up to the tree’s own. Northman shifted and the moon rose higher in the sky as the two of them sat in the snow waiting for the tree to finish.

Eventually the tree stopped bleeding and Eden’s wound was bandaged by Herman. “Stand back,” Herman said, and Eden did, returning to Northman over by their bison, Bringsjoy. Herman hefted an axe, staining its handle with his untreated wound and lined up a swing.

“Shouldn’t I be doing that?” Eden asked.

Herman delivered three quick strokes to the trunk. The edge turned through the wood as through flesh and the tree fell with a crash.

“You did do that,” Herman said.

“It must like you. Whitepaw here,” He said, patting his musket, “took me a whole week to work through.”

“He made you work for it.”

“And I’ve regretted it ever since.” Northman laughed, and somewhere nearby a crow laughed with him. For a moment, a pall of death came over the group, and the color drained from their faces, and from Northman’s gun and from the tree itself as they looked at one another.

The bird called once again, and the light of the moon and the stars blinked away and forth before color returned to the world, and it flew off in an English mess of feathers and squawking repulsion.

Eden stumbled over to Bringsjoy’s saddlebags as his father knelt by the stump and began to utter an appeal. For a moment he was compelled to slump onto Bringsjoy’s bulk for a moment and caress his forehead in pain as a fresh crop of sweat was grown there, and his joints began began to burn. It seemed as though Northman was calling to him, but under the low roar forcing itself through his temples his voice seemed distant and strange.

Eden thrust his hand into his coat pocket and grasped the comfort within. Immediately the pain seemed to recede, the world seemed to quiet, and he could hear Northman again, who shook him at the shoulder.

“Eden? What’s wrong?”

Eden shook his head and pushed him off, and concerned himself with extracting the oils needed to win the tree’s good faith from Bringsjoy’s inventory. Once he had pulled them from their holster, he set to sprinkling them along the length of the Greenhand, taking care to molest the tree’s heart particularly heavily. He returned them to Bringsjoy just as Herman finished and returned to his father, who opened his eyes, took up his axe and removed from his lapel a pouch of skin and bristle, handing it to Eden.

“At the field before the riverlake, you’ll dispense two lives two paces beyond one another, and their nearest cousin. Each anointed,” He gave Eden back his knife. “And then, home again. Yes?”

Eden nodded.

“Treat them as your children, for they are.”

Eden and his father hefted the log; appealed and betrothed, it was light as any of its branches. Northman took the lantern and Bringsjoy’s lead, and together they made their way back into the dark.

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