I stumbled through the foggy woods, before finally admitting to myself that I was lost.
|I was already walking in the woods for about twenty minutes, now. I followed the green trail-markings, but then they disappeared altogether.
I stumbled along through the foggy woods, worried, for another half-hour, before finally admitting to myself that I was completely lost.
“’Let’s go camping!’ they said. ‘It’ll be a fun way to end our backpacking tour of Wales!’ they said,” I muttered to myself as I stopped and leaned against a tree that didn’t look too mossy or damp. Though, in the growing fog, everything was damp to the touch. “’It’s impossible to get lost! There are markers everywhere!’ Yeah, right.”
I looked up at the overcast sky. It was already getting dark, the leaden light fading quickly. I hoped it wouldn’t rain, but with the way my luck had been going since we’d left Cardiff for the countryside I had no doubt it’d be flood-conditions before I found my way back to the campground and my waiting friends.
I sighed, burying my face in my grubby hands. John and Dierdre had probably already gotten the campsite set up and were roasting s’mores while I—sent back to the rental car to grab the boombox so we could listen to some music—was still trying to find said rental. But I was utterly lost beyond the range of the ubiquitous, but not very helpful green markers.
And yet, I’d been so sure that I was walking in the right direction! Even without the green markers, I’d recognized landmarks: a boulder, broken and splattered with bird shit; a fallen tree blocking the path that I remember John and Dierdre clambering over on the way to the campsite, while I’d simply gone around; a small pond (or very large puddle) that we’d all walked around. . . .
But now, having gone way past those landmarks and way past the point where the car should have been, and the road that lead out of this wilderness hell-hole, I was starting to doubt the way I’d come. After all, I was no wilderness expert. This, in the boonies of Wales, was my very first camping trip, though not John and Dierdre’s.
Sighing again, I came one conclusion: It was time to swallow my pride and retrace my steps back the way I’d come. Let John or Dierdre gone after the boombox if they were so keen to have music.
Straightening up and looking around me, I noticed that the fog had increased to the point that I could barely see around me for more than a few yards. And it was nothing but trees and damp, loamy earth that hadn’t held my footprints.
“Fuck,” I breathed. “This isn’t good.”
Starting to panic, now, I began walking back the way I thought I’d come, trying not to think things like death by bear or death by exposure. Of course, the way I was going seemed to take me deeper into the heavy fog, until I couldn’t even see five feet in front of me.
Panic mounted, causing me to pick up my pace till I was running. And I knew it was dangerous running headlong through such an impenetrable fog, in a thick forest, but the sensible part of me was drowned out by the frantic need to get back to a place and the people I knew.
I ran and ran until I tripped over the root of a tree and went sprawling on my front, face in the dirt. The wind was driven out of me and I groaned, spitting out dirt, while my right ankle screamed like a wounded mountain cat. I was suddenly near tears when out of nowhere, I heard it:
Unhurried and relatively nearby, if they could be heard in the fog and damp, squishy earth.
“Help!” I yelled, scrambling to my knees, then to my feet. My right ankle was all useless agony that couldn’t bear my weight. But I hobbled toward the hoof-falls, nonetheless. I even began waving my arms, though the rider probably wouldn’t see me till he or she was almost on top of me because of the fog. “Help! Please! I’m lost!”
The hoof-falls stopped. Then they began to canter toward me through the fog, which was quickly starting to move and thin with the advent of a stiff breeze.
“I’m over here! Help!”
It was another few seconds of heart-pounding panic and hope, all mixed together, before a shape emerged from the grey murk.
It was a large brown horse, almost as big as a Clydesdale, wearing fancy blue tack, like something out of a Ren-Faire. And on its back, in keeping with its theme of medieval splendor, was a. . . .
I blinked. Then blinked again as the knight, in full mail armor, stared down at me from his lofty height. Dark, wary, grim eyes took me in and the knight unsheathed a huge sword that may have been a Claymore . . . or the Welsh equivalent.
He pointed the maybe-Claymore at me and spoke commandingly in Welsh, his words clipped, incomprehensible, and angry.
“I . . . I don’t understand you,” I said, shrugging and shaking my head. The knight frowned—even more ferociously than he already was—and gestured tersely with his sword. He repeated whatever it was he’d said the first time, and when I continued to stare at him blankly (rather at the sword pointed at my head . . . it couldn’t be real, could it?) he made a sound of distaste.
“English?” he said gruffly, looking me over once more. I didn’t know if he was asking if that was what language I spoke or if I was from England.
“Uh . . . I speak English. But I’m from America.” I held up my hands slowly, to show I meant no harm, just in case the sword was real and this guy took Ren-Faire a bit too seriously. “I was camping with my friends and I got lost. I was hoping you could. . . .”
And there I fell silent. It wasn’t like I could give him directions to the campsite, since I was already lost. But he probably knew where the road was. And if I could get to the road, I could find my way to the rental and wait there till morning, or whenever John and Dierdre took it into their heads to come looking for me.
“Could you just tell me where the road—i-is?” I finished with a squeak as the knight quickly dismounted with a jingle of metal. He took a few steps toward me, sword still held up, and I began to limp back, wincing and hissing. For every step back I took, he took one forward, until I hit a tree and could back no further.
The knight, still looking grim and wary, but less angry, came close enough that I could smell him: sweat, metal, and horse. He was slightly shorter than me, and what little of his face was visible in his mail helmet was pale and slightly dirty. His nose was long and crooked, as if it’d been broken and badly set, and perhaps more than once. His dark eyes were round and wide-set. His beard and mustache were neatly trimmed and barely hid a thin, down-turned mouth.
He could’ve been anywhere between thirty-five and fifty.
“You are . . . strangely dressed, lad,” he said in the musically lilting accent I’d come to associate with Welsh English. He reached out and rubbed the material of my dark blue parka and looked me over once more before meeting my eyes, looking slightly puzzled. “From whence do you hail?”
Oh, boy, was this guy really into his role as brave Sir Knight. But I was just glad he knew English, after all.
“Like I said, I’m from America. San Francisco, to be specific.” I fought not to roll my eyes as he stared at me blankly. Obviously those place-names meant nothing to him.
How deep into the Welsh countryside had I wandered, anyway?
“I’m from really far away,” I settled for saying as the knight stepped even closer to me and sniffed me. “Uh, personal space is not just a concept, pal.”
“Your speech is even stranger than your attire,” the knight noted, and I huffed.
“Well, that’s the pot calling the kettle—hey, could you please stop sniffing me? It’s weirding me out.”
The knight took a step back and shook his head. “Methinks you are from farther afield than even I have e’er been,” he said lowly. Then he said something else, this time in what was clearly Spanish, and I could only shrug again. The knight sighed. “I had taken you for Spanish because of your dark looks, yet you do not understand me when I speak that tongue. Odd.”
“Not really, when you consider that I’m not Hispanic.” I rolled my eyes. I’d been mistaken for Hispanic more times than I cared to count. Not a bad thing in itself, but I was Indian, not Puerto Rican, not Mexican, and not from Spain. I just didn’t expect to get it in Wales. In the middle of a forest. And from a guy pretending to be from Ye Olde Wales in his spare time. “Look, can you tell me how to get to the road? I need to get back to my car before it gets too dark to see.”
The knight bit his bottom lip for a moment. “I can stand you better than mere directions, lad. I can offer you a ride to the Great Road.” And with that, he sheathed his sword and looked me over yet again, his gaze lingering at my right foot. “You are injured, are you not?”
“Uh—I guess. I think I sprained it.” Blushing, I tried to put weight on the ankle and hissed again when agony shot up my leg, hot and sharp. I began to rethink sprained in favor of broken. Just my luck. “Damnit!”
“Hmm.” The knight looked around us, then up at the sky, which was even darker than it had been. Within the hour, it’d be full dark. And there was no moon to light the way. “It grows late. Night approaches.”
“Yeah, I—hey!” I squawked as the knight darted forward and scooped me up in his arms like I was some damned damsel in distress. Like I weighed next to nothing, which—okay, maybe I did. A buck fifty-nine soaking wet is pretty skinny for my height.
I flailed and swore while the knight carried me in his arms toward his patient horse. “Put me down!”
And he did. On his horse. With no help from me. I barely thought to swing my right leg out of the way of the horse’s barrel body as the knight placed me on the animal. Then I was sitting astride, gazing down at him with a mixture of awe and fear.
“Boy, you really take this Ren-Faire shit seriously, don’t you?” I asked, and he frowned.
“I know not of what you speak, lad,” he replied, shaking his head just as I had a few minutes ago. Then he was swinging up behind me, his body pressing to mine as he slid his arms past me to grasp the reins. I, for my part, grasped two handfuls of the horse’s mane and tried not to clench too hard. “But tell me how you are called, that I may address you properly.”
All of which I took to mean: “So, what’s your name, kid?”
“Karthik. Karthik Nayar.” I leaned forward a little as the horse began to walk, trying to put a little space between my body and that of good Sir Knight. “What’s your name?”
A few moments passed before he answered. “I am Bleddyn ap Rhys, of Sir Gaernarfon,” he said quietly, his breath warm on my neck. I shivered and blushed, glancing around me to distract myself. It was then that I spotted a semi-familiar boulder.
It looked like the one John, Dierdre, and I had passed to get to the campsite, only . . . it wasn’t broken, nor was it covered in bird shit. It looked brand-spanking-new, if a boulder can be said to look that way.
There’s a simple explanation, dumbass. It’s a different boulder, I told myself, but I couldn’t quite believe that, because except for looking newer and cleaner, it was exactly the same size and shape as the boulder I remembered.
“Where the hell am I?” I muttered to myself. But Bleddyn ap Rhys heard me, anyway, and said:
“You are in Gwydir Forest, on the baronet’s lands, between Trefriw and Llanrwst.”
Which sort of made sense. I remembered Dierdre pointing out those weird-ass names on her ever-present map.
But I said nothing, merely looked around me while we still had the light, so that if necessary, I could find my way back to—well, I supposed the spot where I’d turned up lost in the first place.
A sudden howl went up from the woods far behind us and I tensed up. Bleddyn ap Rhys’ leaned closer to me.
“Worry not, Karthik of Nayar,” he murmured softly. “For the wolves herein are neither bold nor famished. Merely curious and watchful.”
“Famous last words.” I shuddered and grasped the horse’s mane a bit tighter, not wanting to fall off—though that was unlikely with Bleddyn ap Rhys’ arm bracketing me—when there were freaking wolves about.
With a click of his teeth, Bleddyn urged the horse on a bit faster. And sooner rather than later, the trees began to thin, until I could see the road ahead . . . only . . . it wasn’t paved anymore. Gone was the asphalt road and in its place was a well-worn, wide, but nonetheless dirt path.
I couldn’t even find the words to express my dismay till we were actually on the road, and a glance down it in either direction showed nothing but more unpaved glory, filled with ruts and holes.
“Where’d the road go?” I demanded.
“We are on it,” Bleddyn said stolidly, reining his horse in.
“No, I mean—where’d the asphalt go? Where’s the road itself?”
“I know not what az-vault is, but you sit in the Great Road of Baronet John Wynn’s lands. The only road that runs from Trefriw to Llanrwst.”
“But—where’d the paving go?” I asked again, almost close to panic once more. I craned my neck to see further down the dirt road, but what little more I could see was all dirt, too.
“Pave the Great Road?” Bleddyn asked, sounding amused. “With stones? Know you how far this Road runs, Karthik of Nayar?”
“No, but—I know it was paved the last time I was on it. And our car was here, too!”
“Excuse me, our auto. It was right here. I know it was,” I said, my voice gone shrill and anxious. Bleddyn’s gloved right hand left the reins to settle on my arm comfortingly.
“Calm yourself, lad. You’re confused and perhaps bestartled, on top of being lost. But there’s naught to be gained by panic,” Bleddyn soothed and I glanced over my shoulder at him.
“Easy for you to say. You haven’t lost your friends, your car, and an entire road!”
“No, I have not.” Bleddyn sighed. “Perhaps, in light of the pass you find yourself in, you should accompany me to my lord’s castle, and there, we may be able to help you.”
“I—castle? There’s a castle around here?” I demanded, for a moment wondering why, when we could’ve gone on a tour of a castle, John and Dierdre had dragged us all camping.
“There is. Gwydir Castle is but a brief ride from here, and where I was bound, till I heard your cries for aid.”
Alright, I thought with relief. This Gwydir Castle must be where this whole Ren-Faire thing is based. Maybe I can crash there until I can get a forest ranger or whoever to help me find John and Dierdre.
“Okay, sure. Take me to your castle,” I said, too tired to keep freaking out about the road. Maybe I’d wandered farther in the forest than I’d thought, and made my way parallel to the road to some part of it that was under construction.
Yeah. That had to be it.