The evening sun set through the tall trees that ringed Red Gold Bridge. Shafts of sunlight shot through to the ground, turning the stone of the stronghold a deeper shade of gold. Spray from the forest stream that cut beneath the stone arch, rebuilt now after the winter’s war, was caught in the sun, and a perpetual rainbow dazzled in the mist.
Joe and Arrim trudged across the arch of the bridge, Joe feeling weariness deep in his bones. The road was already in shadow behind them, and the mountain rose ahead, the wall and the great gate rising thirty feet over their heads. A slice of the setting sun illuminated the red gold of the stone, and the iron and wood of the gate caught some of the glow.
Off to the side was the smaller postern gate, the one everyone used these days. The two guardians headed that way, threading their way through the steady stream of smallholders heading back to their forest holdings. Once the smallholders would not have dared to travel the Wood when the sun was so near to setting. It was thanks to Arrim and Joe that they could now.
Small men and women in their drab forest clothes gave them half bows and shy smiles. Arrim bowed back, the movement coming easily to him. Joe had introduced his own custom. He shook hands with one or two people he had come to recognize on his patrols through the woods that kept the forest settled and quiet.
The forestholders came to the stronghold on the banks of the Aeritan River to trade every few days, bringing in baskets of mushrooms, dried fish, and dyes made from the plants that grew in clearings only they knew. They brought in freshwater pearls and smoked eels, thick clay, the charcoal and firewood that would be used by smiths to fire their forges, and the spicy roots that were used to make vesh, what Joe called the national drink of Aeritan. Their goods were prized all over Aeritan, and the forestholders traded them for what they needed: forged tools, textiles, and food, mostly protein they couldn’t get for themselves. The forestholders lived in dark, secretive clearings in the Wood and knew the forest better than Joe and Arrim. They stayed away from the portal at its center, though. They left that for the guardians.
Waiting his turn to duck through the postern gate, Joe caught movement and looked up. Lady Sarita was watching them from over the wall, thirty feet up.
Like him, she wore the clothes from her old life, T-shirt and jeans. She held a cup in her hand. Vesh, probably. He heard that she had missed it, back in New York. He waved and smiled.
Of course, she didn’t wave back; she wouldn’t have, even when she was Mrs. Hunt, owner of Hunter’s Chase, and he was just the barn handyman.
Then Lord Tharp joined her, and Joe’s grin faded. He hurried after Arrim and ducked through the low arch inside the wall. Instantly he was plunged into darkness, the only light a narrow swath coming from the courtyard inside the wall. Even though Lady Sarita had come back to Tharp after years of living on the other side—and it hadn’t been too bad a life there, that’s for sure—she and her husband stalked around one another like a pair of pissed-off cats. Joe didn’t work for Lord Tharp, but he didn’t want to make him hotter than he already was, where his wife was concerned.
Man’s got a serious problem, if he thinks he can keep her on a short leash. Joe hadn’t known Mrs. Hunt before she was Mrs. Hunt, so to speak, but she had run her stables at a profit by keeping a tight hand on the wheel. She wasn’t the kind to put up with someone trying to run her the same way.
His stomach cramped with hunger. He looked forward to a hot meal, his first in a half month, and a bed with blankets and furs instead of a thin bedroll on a mattress of leaves. Arrim threw him a look as they emerged into the courtyard, already half in darkness. Joe shook his head at his look of inquiry.
“Just thinking of a good hot meal.”
“Thank the forest god that’s all we have to worry about tonight.” He grinned. “And maybe a girl who thinks to curry favor with the forest god by being sweet to a guardian. Your Corinna, even.”
Corinna worked in the kitchens and had her eye on Joe almost since the day he came to Red Gold Bridge. She was a broad, pleasant-faced woman about his age, and she had made her interest clear. And Lynn could be on the moon, for all they could ever be together. So far, though, Joe had just been friendly and nothing more. He made a noncommittal noise.
“I’m gonna clean up. See you at the kitchens.”
Joe dumped his gear in his guardian’s chamber on the inside wall of the stronghold. He stretched, welcoming the relief of the pack off his shoulders. Guardians didn’t carry much, just a bedroll, dried food, and water, but the constant weight put a strain on his shoulders. His old boots were not meant for walking, but he was loathe to give them up. They were in much better shape than Arrim’s hobnailed boots, and guardians didn’t exactly draw a salary with which to buy new shoes. The job was its own reward, which sucked as far as Joe was concerned. He had never made much money back home, but at least he had been able to buy the essentials. Now he got room and board after a fact, but little else.
He stripped his shirt and washed himself at the basin of clean water left for him in the small room. The soap was a lumpy chunk that hardly raised a lather. Be nice to have a shower, he reflected, rinsing off and drying himself with a threadbare cloth. A nice hot shower and a good close shave, instead of using a straight razor that he about cut his own throat with. Instead he got standup baths, long nights out in the weather, jerky for breakfast, and biscuits for dinner.
And the beer was bad, too.
Still, it was like the woods knew him. When he set foot in the forest, the woods called to him as if he were home. He sure never saw woods like this where he grew up in central Texas, just thorny mesquite and papery cedar. Not even the cottonwoods back home that lined the creek beds with green were forest like this one. Here the trees closed out the sun. Only small shafts of sunlight reached the damp, cool ground that smelled of decaying leaves. The meadows were bright with green and yellow grasses, and in spring they were studded with a small purple flower like the bluebonnets back home. Creeks ran all summer long, even in the drought of August, or what he felt was probably August. He forgot the new season names that he had learned, and he had lost track of time. All he knew was, it was summer now, and the gordath had settled down. All last winter though, things had been bad, and Joe wasn’t sure he was going to be able to take it.
Back then, the gordath had racked the woods, each earthquake cracking the frozen ground and breaking up stone. He and Arrim trod softly, letting their minds reach out to touch the uneasy portal, and slowly, slowly, it closed up. Finally, there was nothing left but traces of the gordath’s fury.
He and Arrim marked where trees had fallen and let the forest smallholders salvage them for firewood and for their new houses. One smallholding had been completely destroyed, its houses fallen and the trees toppled as if a missile had flattened the little hamlet. When they came upon it, Joe had been struck by the quietness of the small settlement. It had still been winter, and the snow covered up the fallen houses, but someone had raised a pile of stones to the dead, leaves scattered across the top and around its foot. Joe stood shivering in the cold, but a strange sad peace held the tiny village, as if it were still being soothed.
“The forest will grow up around it,” Arrim said, startling him out of his sad revery. “Vines will cover all this, and saplings will rise from the forest floor.”
” That’s it?” Joe said. He thought of funerals back home and of memorials on the side of dangerous roads, their crosses faithfully marked with plastic flowers.
Arrim pointed to the cairn. “This is all the forest god requires. Then he takes back his own.”
Joe still felt the situation called for something, so he fashioned a small cross, lashing it together with a bit of string from his supplies, and laid it against the snowy pile of rock. Maybe it would confuse the forest god and maybe it wouldn’t, but he liked to think of the little cross there, slowly decaying and returning to the forest, the emblem of a foreign god. He hadn’t been religious back home. He wasn’t sure what had happened to him here in Red Gold Bridge, except they had gods for everyone and everything, it seemed like.
It was just another way he was learning to think in Aeritan.
The little village was not the only victim of the gordath. Joe began to recognize other places, older places, that had once been cleared and were now vine-covered, their sentinel trees standing around a rough clearing, old stones in a rough pattern humping under a growth of moss. Last winter had not been the first time the gordath flung itself open in a burst of energy, nor the first time the forest god took back its own. Gordath Wood was full of these mementos to the dangerous portal that hid at its heart.
Joe finished washing up and put his old T-shirt back on, the material worn and faded. It was only a matter of time before it fell apart completely and he would have to turn to Aeritan clothes. One of the smallholders had patched it for him once when he and Arrim had stopped in on their holding in the western part of the wood. She had taken one look at his outlandish t-shirt and his jeans, and laughed outright, shaking her head.
“Give me that for mending,” she scolded, and he looked startled, but he slipped the shirt off over his head. She sat down and mended a tear under the arm while he sipped vesh and the kids giggled at his pale skin. She bit off the thread and handed it back to him. “Come back with enough cloth, and I will make a proper set of clothes for you.”
He looked at the heavy trousers everyone else wore and hoped that his jeans held out for a while. He knew that a shirt like Arrim’s would suit him better. He knew why he resisted, though, and it was for the same reason that Mrs. Hunt wore her rich lady’s version of his outfit.
Forget the portal; once the clothes were gone and they went native, they could never go back.
The door opened, and Arrim ducked in.
“I have a bad feeling,” the guardian said.
Shit. Arrim’s bad feelings tended to come true.
“What? What is it?”
Arrim grinned. “That they’ll run out of bread in the kitchens before we get there, Guardian.”
Joe rolled his eyes and pushed past him. “Arrim, where I come from, you know what we call people who make jokes like that?”