by Christopher Brown
Henry huffed as he walked up the next hill. The sound they had heard from the village was unmistakable. It was the beast that all grassland dwellers feared, perhaps even more than the mechanical monsters that would attack every winter: the grootsnake.
William and George followed behind Henry. Grassland scouts travel in groups of three: few enough people to go unnoticed if they stumble into trouble, but enough that if they are spotted, at least one man can escape and warn the village.
“There’s no way the monster was further than this hill,” Henry stated. “Otherwise we’d never have heard it from the village.” He crested the hill and paused, surveying the area. “We were right. It was the caravan.” He walked further.
“Of course it was the caravan!” George exclaimed. “I told you they were fools to try carrying that many diamonds so soon after the grootsnake’s feeding season. The elephants haven’t yet herded past our village yet and the grootsnake loves diamonds.” George stopped to gaze at the sight on the other side of the hill.
“Not much left,” William observed, “but it was definitely the caravan.”
“Mostly scrap wood now,” said Henry as he turned over what used to be the side of a wagon. “Let’s see if any arrowheads survived.”
The three spread out to sort through the wreckage. The first ten minutes yielded no results.
“No diamonds yet,” William called out. “No bodies either.”
“Same here,” George added. “Grootsnake swallows them whole.”
“Guys! Check this out!” Henry cried excitedly.
The other two caught up with Henry to find a single cart just past the treeline of the forest. Henry was already climbing inside.
“The beast must’ve been too busy with the rest of the caravan to notice this wagon before it was pushed into the forest,” Henry said from inside.
William noticed something on the ground. “It looks like the driver ran off, judging by the footprints.”
“Smart guy,” George commented.
“Or cowardly.” Henry kept looking through the wagon’s contents. “I think this will work.”
“What will work?” William stepped through the door on the back end of the wagon.
“I think there’s enough!”
“Enough what?” William was growing impatient.
“Enough to trade!” Henry’s eyes lit up at the thought of adventure. “The town of Stonewood should be about a day away. Do you have your standard emergency rations?”
“I packed light for speed. George always packs double…”
“Even better! You take word to the village. It’s not near what we’d hoped, but we’ll return as soon as possible with enough ficwood for one superbow. Tell them to prepare accordingly.”
“I should help on the journey.”
“The village thinks the caravan is gone. If we don’t return at all they’ll think us dead and fall into despair. Bring them hope, brother.”
A cloaked figure walked through the hills between mountain and forest. One could hardly tell that this path existed, as merchants had long abandoned the route.
“Past the village,” he murmured to himself, “then someone will be in trouble up this way. Should be soon.”
A roar sounded in the distance.
“That must be them.” He took off running. “And that sounded like the grootsnake!”
Henry and George were pulling the wagon as fast as they could. They were so close. They’d lasted twenty hours without incident, then the roar. The beast had caught their scent.
“Over there! Look!” Henry pointed to a cloaked man frantically waving them in his direction.
They ran toward the man as the grootsnake reared for a moment, mere feet away.
“That way! Into the cave!” the cloaked man yelled as the boys ran past.
They kept focused on the cave opening ahead, not even flinching when there was a flash of light behind them, followed by a confused groan of a roar.
“Further in, further in!”
Not that they’d yet slowed, but they went further into the cave. Then with a TWOOM and the sound of falling rocks, they were surrounded by darkness.
“What happened?” Henry said, mentally listing what he needs to make a torch.
“Do not worry,” the stranger said as he approached the boys from behind. “I will light the way.” In his palm he held a flame.
Henry and George exchanged an uneasy look, but having no other option they followed him down the tunnel.