Note: After an adventure has run its course, I collect the posts together so readers don’t have to jump around the blog to re-read the story. Originally this spanned a month’s time, posting each Thursday and continuing according to how readers voted in the comments. The comments you see at the end now are therefore what readers voted on the first post in this story. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoy.
We finished the Garden Mischief Adventure last week, so welcome to a new adventure story!
If you’ve been around a while, you know I gain inspiration from just about anything. This most recent adventure sparked after a day I spent fasting. (This might seem like a weird thing to you, but I’m okay with that. I had some personal reasons for the fast.) Anyway, it’s been a while since I went without food for 24 hours and I was a bit surprised by how difficult it was for me. After missing the first two meals, I became distinctly aware of every discomfort in my body and it occurred to me just how motivating a need for food could be.
Of course, my mind continued with that idea, where the main character in an adventure is driven by the ache in his or her belly and by a world where food is difficult to come by no matter who you are.
Thus the following adventure was born. Let’s explore =)
Four men sit around a small fire with their legs outstretched in the dirt and their backs against mossy rocks that are padded with their bed rolls. They eat in silence, tearing chunks off the bones of two rabbits they roasted on spits.
They are not aware of your presences, where you lay hunkered beneath the large, glossy leaves of a young oak. Your stomach growls at the smell of roasted meat. Judging by how the men are devouring their dinners, there won’t be any rabbit left to steal by the time they bed down for the night.
But there might be some jerky or nuts in their bags. Not as tasty as fresh meat, but at the moment the ache in your belly doesn’t care if the food’s moldy so long as it’ll ease the clawing inside.
You wait, ignoring the ants crawling over your hands while the men finish off the rabbits and settle in to sleep for the night. Still you wait, even when the ants bite, welting your arms and neck, until the whistling, rattling snores of the group combine with the frogs and cicadas in the dark. Only then do you emerge, stepping heel to toe between a man with a braided beard and a man who covered his face with a stained Stetson.
The nearest bag sits just beyond the feet of Braided Beard. His boots are so worn that you can see the grubby end of his sock sticking out the leather toe. Your hope for nuts or jerky fades a bit at seeing how gaunt the man is beneath his shirt. If you paused long enough, you could probably count his ribs.
But hunger drives you to look inside the man’s bag anyway. You find an extra pair of socks that look surprisingly whole and a shirt wadded around something. Pulling out the shirt, you carefully unwrap it and stare in surprise.
Your stomach growls, disappointed.
The moonlight peeking through the oak leaves glitters off a ruby the size of your palm. Never in your life have you seen such a gem. At first you’re tempted to pocket the thing—out here in the Rough, it’s every person for himself—but there’s no way you can fence it for food without drawing more trouble than you can handle. Carefully wrapping it back up, you tuck the shirt and ruby away in the man’s bag and move on to Stetson’s bag where it rests beside his head.
As you move, it almost sounds like an animal bushes the leaves beyond the firelight but after waiting and holding your breath, nothing reveals itself. You open Stetson’s bag.
On the top rests a knife as long as your forearm. You pinch it between a thumb and forefinger and set it aside on the ground. Not many have such weapons in the Rough. The cities hoard weapons like their lives depend on them, never mind that they have stone walls keeping most of the animals at bay.
Below the knife is a folded shirt and a drawstring bag that makes your stomach grumble in hope. Your fingers have just closed around it when Stetson’s hand shoots out, capturing your ankle in one strong, long fingered hand.
A small cry escapes you as you tumble from your crouched position onto your backside.
Stetson lifts his hat to reveal a tattooed face with cold gray eyes. He growls, pushing to sit up while still holding your ankle.
You can’t let him wake everyone while he still holds you. There’s no way you’ll escape four against one. Your fingers close around the knife you set aside and you bring it up threateningly at the same time as you kick Stetson in the side.
He gives an umph and lets go but his cold eyes turn from merely surprised to angry and you know you’re in trouble.
You swing the knife warningly and scramble away only to find Braided Beard behind you. He grabs your shoulders.
You squirm but Braided Beard’s strong despite his gaunt form.
Something sails past your head and smacks into the man’s face. Before you realize what’s happening, another object catches him on the nose and blood starts flowing from his nostrils.
His grip weakens enough for you to break away. You duck under his raised arms and take off into the woods.
Sounds of pursuit follow but once you’re in the trees, your terror eases. This is your domain now. You dart through the trees and under vines until you see a familiar bowl in an oak. Spinning around the tree by grasping a low hanging branch, you stoop inside the hollow trunk and go still.
Hulking figures soon appear, wandering through the darkness, searching. Your breath rasps inordinately loud in your ears but you know the cicadas are drowning out the sound. Finally, the men leave, grumbling in frustration.
Still you don’t move. Someone tossed those rocks at Breaded Beard and you figure if you wait long enough, they’ll reveal themselves.
Sure enough, moments later a small form rounds the oak and tucks himself into the bowl of the tree with you. He’s so tiny that he barely takes up any space. You recognize his hollow face and bony frame. His name’s Howard but everyone you know simply calls him How because of all the questions he likes to ask.
Although you’ve worked with How before scavenging food, you weren’t aware he’s so good at throwing. In the darkness, you see his white teeth flash in a smile as he tosses a small stone on his palm.
“I did good, yeah?” he whispers.
A chuckle escapes you. “Yeah.”
The smile disappears and he leans closer. “Good enough to share whatever food you got?” he points at the drawstring bag still in your hand.
In the chaos, you didn’t mean to take it with you, but between clutching the knife and focusing on escaping, you forgot you held it in your other hand.
You fear whatever’s inside isn’t the food you both hope for but you nod and pull open the bag to look.
A blue gem sparkles in the dim light. You tip it out onto your palm and How gives a breathless whistle.
“You know what that is?” he asks.
You shake your head.
“See how it glows? It’s one of the new element-stones an inventor figured out in Darmont. You know about those? You know they usually come with a guidebook to explain how they work? What are we going to do with it?”
Your chest tightens at what you hold in your palm. You’ve heard of the element-stones but have never seen one. The cities struggled for food just like the Rough until about a year ago when the Darmont inventor discovered the stones. They create heat or water or grow food depending on which type of stone you use. With a grouping of the stones, you could create your own small harvest to live off of.
“This is probably a water-stone,” you speculate.
The boy’s grin flashes again. “Clean water’s hard to come by.”
Your mind continues to consider the situation. The men around the campfire probably stole the stones from one of the supposedly secure posts that runs between the cities, so you doubt they can report the theft, which means you have to watch out for the men themselves, but not any of the authorities from the cities.
Could they possibly have a green stone as well? Even though vegetation grows like a flood in the Rough, little of it is safe to eat.
But then, clean water is also precious. Do you cut your losses and take the treasure you already hold and hope you can figure out how to use it? Or do you steal from the men again in hopes of an instruction pamphlet or another stone?
“Let me think on it,” you tell How.
He nods and settles against your side to sleep while you tuck the stone away.
Cut Your Losses?
Rough Hunger – Steal Again
You see the glitter of Breaded Beard’s dark eyes and the white swatch of his nose bandage as he scans the forest while his companions sleep. Your stomach rumbles but you’re not worried about the husky man hearing over the chatter of the early morning birds.
“How do we get past him?” How asks. When you woke him and told him you planned to steal from the men again, How had grinned in excitement. Now the grin’s gone, replaced by a worried pinching of his brows while he chews on a piece of pine bark.
You glance up. The sky displays an ever lightening gray through the tree canopy.
“Time to disappear,” you whisper in How’s ear and he follows you back to the bowl in the tree where you hid the night before.
“Should we follow them today?” How asks.
You don’t like the idea. It’s more likely the men will notice if you start tailing them through the forest. Your fingers close around the stone in your pocket. Can you figure it out without the instructions?
How’s fingers suddenly grasp your arm. His frown’s melted into a panicked, wide-eyed look that makes his hazel eyes look too big for his narrow face.
About to ask him what’s wrong, you hear the swish of a pant leg against the heavy foliage. A moment later, a lean man in buckskin leggings comes into view to the left of your tree. He’s crouched, inspecting the ground.
The swish comes again and the man’s hand shoots out, telling someone behind him to wait. You recognize him from the night before as he sat across the fire from Braided Beard when they were eating.
He’s a tracker. Realization sinks a knot into your belly, an angry companion next to your hunger.
“The swamps,” you breathe into How’s ear.
He gulps, but moves as soon as the Tracker’s back is turned. A moment later when the man turns again to signal those behind him, you follow How.
You know the Tracker will follow your trail through the forest. It’s a bitter admission, but you just don’t have the skill to hide your passage from him. But the swamps are another matter entirely.
You duck under a low hanging vine and direct How to the right by a touch on his shoulder. Not long after, you spot a familiar cypress with deep root channels.
“Hold up.” You stop at the tree to search in the thick leaves at the base. Your fingers come away with a damp layer of musty dirt, but you find what you’re looking for.
Unearthing two empty turtle shells about three feet across, you hand one to How.
How flips it over a couple times in confusion.
You gesture for him to follow and he does, until you step into the swamp and lower yourself up to your shoulders in the mucky water.
“Uck,” he grumbles. “Do we have to?”
“Can you hide your trail well enough to escape a tracker?”
How’s shoulders slump but he steps into the water, sinking down until he can hold the turtle shell over his head. You slowly float away, letting the sluggish swamp current fill the path behind you in the surface debris.
It’s dark and musty beneath the shell with the swamp’s moldy oder filling your nostrils and climbing down your throat.
How follows by holding the edge of your shell below the water. It occurs to you that two large turtles floating so close together might look odd, so once you get out into the swamp, you chance a quick peek and spot a small grove of cypress growing with their bulbous trunks and roots straight out of the water.
You angle toward it and direct How to settle between two of the deep roots. With him safe, you move around and pick another deep section to wedge yourself in. Grime squishes between your toes and makes the roots below the water slippery, but you dig your feet in and stay put.
It’s not long before you hear voices.
“Rough Rats!” one of the men grumbles.
“They actually went into the swamp?” another asks, shock clear in his words.
There’s a pause, then, “If you’re serious about reclaiming that stone, we’ll have to enter the water too.”
There’s some cursing but you catch the swish of the men entering the water.
After that they’re so quiet that you chance lifting your shell a fraction to gaze out. Just as you do, one of the men who’s so skinny he almost looks almost skeletal, yanks his foot up with a yelp.
“Hold up! Hold up!” Skinny shouts. Hopping, he heads toward the cypress grove directly between you and How. Once there, he lifts his bare foot up on the roots and then yelps again as his pack overbalances him backwards. He shrugs out of it and pitches it up onto the trees before trying to look again. A waft of air stirs past your face and an ache starts in your chest before trying to climb up the back of your throat. It’s the yeast of bread. You’d know it anywhere.
As you’re staring at the slumped pack, How’s hand emerges from the far side of the cypress roots. Slowly, he pulls it under his shell.
“Hey!” The tracker lunges for How’s position.
How stands up, swings his shell hard into the tracker’s side, and then dives, shell and all.
He disappears below the floating scum but the tracker’s eyes seem to be picking out every small ripple in the water while he wheezes for breath.
“Flip the turtle shells,” he instructs, heading in the direction How went.
It’s a tall order as turtles love sunbathing in the area and it’s littered with shells, but How can’t stay down indefinitely and the size of his shell will give him away.
“Wait for me,” Skinny hollers, trying to wrap a bandana around his bleeding foot. The others start flipping over anything that’s floating, ignoring the man.
You need to distract them, but how?
Gators immediately come to mind. In the swamps, they’re the biggest danger and the men were already hesitant to enter the muck. If you shout “Gator” and then dive, abandoning your shell, you might be able to swim away far enough away to escape while the men are distracted.
Skinny finishes tying his foot and turns to join the others, which places his back to you. Another idea dawns, one that might get the men to stop following. You could take Skinny captive and negotiate for the men to leave you and How alone in exchange for their man. Skinny’s small enough you think you can subdue him.
Take Skinny Captive?
Rough Hunger – Yell Gator!
The men, including Skinny, are flipping over everything in the water—sticks, turtles, even trash. Slime from the water’s surface now coats their hands and they’re leaving a large swath of disturbed surface debris in their wake. It’s perfect as their movement could have drawn a sleepy gator to notice them.
Floating to a spot farther around the cypress tree, you set your turtle shell aside, silently stand up, and take as deep a breath as possible before letting out a, “GATOR!”
Then you thrash through the water, splaying debris and waves in your wake.
Shouts sound behind you. You glance back to see the tracker’s climbed the nearest cypress and Braided Beard and Stetson are wading-running toward the nearest land. Skinny’s trying to climb a tree as well but with his bleeding foot, he’s only half out of the water.
A grin threatens to expose your deceit just as the tracker spots you. You let a look of terror overtake your face and spin, diving below the mucky surface of the swamp to swim away.
The first three strokes are easy enough, but it’s not long before your chest starts to ache from holding your breath.
Just a little farther.
You count each stroke, avoiding tree roots and sticks while feeling minnows swimming against your skin, until you hit twenty. Selecting a tree, you make sure you’re on the far side before surfacing just enough to gasp in a breath. The air rushing into your chest is the sweetest thing you’ve felt since your last meal. You let a dizzy moment pass before taking another full breath and diving under the surface to keep going.
Later, you sit hunkered inside the same tree where you hid the night before. In all the chaos, you have no idea where How or the men are, although something keeps nagging at your mind.
Movement in the heavy underbrush catches your eye. With your brown clothing and dirty skin, it’s unlikely anyone will spot you within the tree, but you go completely still just in case.
How emerges and ducks in to sit beside you.
Giving testament to his nickname, he whispers, “How clever was that! The men won’t even think to check back along our old trail.”
It dawns on you what’s been nagging at you. “Yes, they will. Only Skinny had his pack, which means the others will be back for theirs.”
How gives a huff, but then grins. “But they’re not back yet—”
Catching onto his thought, you finished it for him, “—Which also means their packs are unwatched in the camp still.”
You both scamper out of the tree and head toward the men’s camp. At first, the only sign you see of where they slept is the cold fire.
“Drat!” How grumbles. “No packs.”
A bit of fabric catches your eye. You circle the camp to investigate and find yourself wading through a swath of kudzu to discover three packs hidden beneath.
You recognize Stetson and Braided Beard’s bags, so you open what must be the tracker’s pack first.
“Pay dirt,” you breathe, your stomach clenching at the smell that hits you.
How appears at your elbow, peering into the pack at the bread and cheese inside.
He whimpers when you break off a small chunk of the cheese and hand it over. Then you take a small piece for yourself and sling the pack over your shoulder.
A quick check of the other two packs confirms your suspicion. They’re empty of everything but clothing.
“Time to get out of here.” You nudge How. His cheeks move slightly as he sucks on his piece of cheese.
“I’ve got a decent hiding spot not far from here,” He says around the cheese. “It’s not very big, but we could pass a night there if need be.”
Your stomach growls, wanting more than your small bite of cheese. Above, the sun’s position tells you that you only have about an hour before sunset. You might be able to settle into How’s hiding spot before full dark if you hurry.
“I’ve been staying in a cypress grove south of here,” you mutter to How, “but it’ll be after dark before we get there.”
“South?” How asks. “It’s swampier south of here.”
“More predators,” you confirm, “but also harder to follow us.”
Do you go to…
How’s Hiding Spot?
Your Cypress Grove?
Rough Hunger – How’s Hiding Spot
“Watch that.” How points with his chin and sucks his body tight to the left hand side of the foliage tunnel.
In the dusky light, you recognize the shiny three-clustered leaves on the vine he just avoided. Poison ivy.
Being bigger than How, you push harder into the foliage on the left to skirt past. Beyond, you find How laid out on his back with the foliage mere inches from his nose. Shrugging off the pack, you slide in beside him.
“Not very big, eh?”
He giggles. “Works for me.”
You lay quiet for a moment as the forest’s bugs begin to sound around you. Somewhere above, a cardinal calls and is answered. Enjoying the moment to breathe, you break out the cheese and bread and hand How chunks of both before taking some for yourself.
You nibble at the food to let your stomach adjust to it.
“My last meal was some pecans two days ago,” How says. “How about you?”
“Ants,” you answer. “I found some of those big black ants.”
How snorts, “Not very filling.”
“Not unless you spend all day at it.” You recall the moment the roasting meat smell had hit your nose from the men’s fire. Although you’d been eating ants most of the day, your stomach had instantly clenched in desire. Instead of food, though, you’d found something else.
You pull the blue element stone from your pocket. Its soft glow fills the tiny space under the foliage in aqua-green hues.
The men will continue looking for it, you’re sure. Although How’s hiding spot feels safe, it’s not, and at first light you’ll have to move.
“How do you think it works?” How asks, pointing at the stone.
A noise wakes you. The stone rests on How’s stomach from where he set it the night before while you both brainstormed how to use it. Faint sunlight now streams into the foliage, letting you know you’ve slept far too long.
The noise comes again, and then How cries out as he disappears down the vine tunnel, being pulled by his feet.
On instinct, you flee the other way, low crawling out of the deep foliage on the far side and climbing the nearest tree you come to, a black walnut. A moment later, How stops hollering and you go still.
“Ha!” Skinny chortles in excitement. “Guess the tracker’s worth his pay.”
“Where’s the other thief?” Braided Beard asks, his voice nasally from his nose being broken.
“I’ll get him,” Skinny grumbles.
“Hold up.” You peek through the walnut’s branches to see the tracker holding his hand up. He points. “There’s your water stone,” he says. “Do you want to keep tracking the thief?”
Stetson grabs the stone and makes it disappear into his pocket. “Guess not,” he says.
“But this one broke my nose!” Braided Beard says. “How about I break his in turn?”
How spins, catching Skinny by surprise enough to get to his feet but running into Stetson before he makes it more than a few steps. There’s no way How can escape with four against one, although he’s giving it a solid try.
You look around and spot the clusters of nuts still hanging on the tree. Hopefully your aim is as good as How’s was when he helped you. Grasping the walnuts, you tear them from the branch and start pitching them at Stetson, then at Skinny. Their hard shells make satisfying thuds as they connect and the men yelp in surprise.
With another handful, you pelt Braided Beard until he takes a step back and you have a moment to find more walnuts.
In that moment, there’s a soft sound and you realize the tracker’s laughing. He turns and walks away while you start pelting Stetson again. How drops suddenly and breaks the man’s hold. Instantly he’s in the trees.
It’s then the men realize their tracker wandered away.
They spin, looking to find him, and spot his retreating form.
“Hey, don’t lose him! We paid him already.”
“We’ll be lost out here!”
And then they’re gone, hurrying after their tracker.
How appears below the tree to lean against it, his shoulders shaking until he can’t contain his laughter any more and starts guffawing in delight.
You climb down to join him.
With a snort, he tries to contain himself.
“We lost the stone,” you say, still looking after the men.
“Still have some cheese and bread,” How answers. “Better off than when we started.”
“True enough,” you agree. “And just think, Skinny crawled in to haul you out. What you bet he’s going to be super itchy later from the ivy?”
You meet How’s eyes and he busts out laughing again.
Whew, you survived! Thanks for joining this adventure. Next week will see the start of a brand new adventure, so stop by and join in the fun =)
Until then, blessings,