A sharp wind cracked against a young boy’s cheeks as he climbed a small hill. The satchel on his back pitched first to the left with the wind and then the right as he overcorrected, nearly throwing him over the edge. Years of climbing this hill had seasoned him to the harsh climate -- many a time had he rolled back down the muddy terrain. As he reached the crest of the grassy knoll with a heaving chest he stood, tossing a dour look behind him. Once he began to march again, a snapping below caused him to topple and nearly roll back through the tall grass he’d just ascended. He looked down and rolled his eyes, of course his sandal would break halfway through this behemoth of a hill.
He prayed to the gods that he would be paid extra for his speed. In this heat, no one was really out doing anything but swimming in the river. The ladies at tavern he was delivering to had been telling him for years not to venture out if the conditions outside or his health were poor. They were nice to him, as were most of his customers. But the oldest woman had a kind twinkle in her eye that made him comfortable --- also the frequent tips and food were a plus.
At just eight summers old, he was the fastest way to get a message anywhere. One time, he delivered a message three days away in only two days. That was what he told people when the asked why he was always running around towns instead of playing with the other children. His own mother had died some summers ago, so he’d gotten a job doing the thing he was greatest at - running around. Maybe he’d get some food from them today too. If not, there were plenty of Inns in the next town that would give him scraps for work.
Deciding that no shoes was better than one, he strapped the sandals to his pack and walked the rest of the rough trail barefoot. He would be fine, he’d taken his path probably more than a hundred times since he’d begun his career as a messenger. He opened the small gate within the huge wall with his key - a gift from the household. It meant a lot that the family trusted him so much. Why they kept the tavern walled in like a prison he did not know.
After a little bit more walking he saw the familiar old porch up ahead. He had heard many a tale about the ghost and spirits that haunted the old tavern behind the wall. But, he assumed that those people had never actually been brave enough to visit with the women who lived there. He only really knew the elder woman. There was blonde lady named Sarah who was his late mother's age, and a tiny girl younger than him who never spoke more than a word to him. When she answered the door, she would alway sneak him treats or toys. He’d tried asking if they were related but the little girl wouldn’t tell and her grandmother ignored him whenever he asked.
Last solstice season, he had taken a whole pouch of scrolls from four days away, and travelled back to the tavern in time for the Solstice festival and they’d given him double the money and fed him until he could not fit another bite in his stomach. He’d accidentally fallen asleep at the table and he had woken to a pack of leftover food, a thank you note that was unsigned, and a small toy lamb. He’d ran out of the house, not ashamed to say that the dark tavern was very scary in the middle of the night.
Just when he was about to knock, the door flew open and youngest girl opened the door. She smiled at him and waved to him, curls bouncing every which way. She’d never spoken to him before, but he didn't have conversations during most of his jobs anyway. He smiled back and waved back. Once he slid his bag off to get the messages, the girl made a grunt type noise at him. Before he could ask what she was doing, the girl stepped outside the door and shut it behind her. She motioned for him to stay quiet and then to follow her. He nodded and looked curiously at her while he tucked the scroll back into his pack.
She grabbed his hand and tugged him around the side of the building. He winced as his bare foot made contact with an errant rock but he did not make a sound. They ran through the grass and rocks all through the back yard and into the wall of trees behind the property. He was curious about where they were going but also a little worried for his safety. The girl stopped running and he stood next to her trying to catch his breath. The noises of the forest were punctuated with the yells of a lot of people. It sounded like a huge party was going on. When he finally looked up at the site before him, he gasped in amazement. There was nothing, no one: no animals and no people. All he saw was trees for miles and the setting sun. But where had the noises come from?
He heard a branch snap above him and a muffled cry. He and the small girl gasped in unison. The forest went silent and fear rose within him. Quickly the girl tugged on his arm and they both took off towards the front of the Inn. Once they reached the front, the girl ran back up through door and slammed it shut. He stood there for a minute, dumbstruck. What had just happened?
Just as quickly as she’d disappeared, the young child opened the door again - this time accompanied by Sarah. The older woman smiled at him and handed out a bag of food to him. She looked down and frowned at his bare, dirty feet and tossed him an irritated look.
“Where are your shoes?”
He shrugged off his pack to show her the broken strap, “Broken ma’am.”
“Well we can’t have that. I’ll have mother fix them. Do you have a few minutes?” she asked him, stepping back into the house with the door open.
This was his only stop today and his only plans were to take a swim in the river before heading back to town. He nodded as she opened the door and he slipped in, careful not to trek too much filth into the tavern. His tiny friend was nowhere to be seen so he turned to Sarah for direction.
“You can sit on that chair over there, that way you won't track mud everywhere. Goodness me, I forgot how dirty little boys could get.” She winked a him. “It’s been a long time since we had any here. I’ll be right back!”
He waited patiently and tried his best to be still. The young girl appeared around the corner after a while and looked both ways before sneaking over to him. She handed him another pouch and motioned for him to hide it. He stuffed it into his bag with the other one and smiled at her.
“What, what was that I heard back there? It was amazing.The forest was talking!” he whispered quietly to her.
“It’s a secret; can’t tell no one,” she whispered right back. “Gramma’s coming, gotta go!”
Footsteps could be heard again and the little girl ran out of sight as the older woman walked slowly into the room holding his repaired shoes in one hand and a glass of water in the other.
“You know, I told Sarah to tell you not to come here if it’s too hot! There’s nothing important enough to give us that can’t wait ‘til the next day. Okay? Now, let me see what you brought.”
Quickly she traded the glass for the pack of scrolls ,and he waited diligently to see if she was going to send a response. He watched as she mouthed the words out loud. He couldn’t read lips or letters so he didn’t try to be nosy. He was a messenger not the town gossip. As she read, he studied her with great detail. He had never really talked with her. She looked like any town elder, although she wasn’t as old as some of them. Her hair was still mostly black with grey streaks throughout, and her face looked like she spent most of her days smiling. She looked up at him, which startled him into looking at the floor hurriedly.
“Thank you for bringing this today. I won’t have a another message for at least a fortnight. Could you come back then?” he nodded and shut his pack.
“Thank you ma’am, I’ll be back then. Thank you for fixin’ my sandals. I think I need to look into some boots.” he muttered as he stood to leave.
“I’ll make you a deal, son. Come back in two weeks, and I’ll have some boots here for you too. I appreciate all that you do for us. I know we are hard to get to and you have never let us down. What’s your name?” She patted his head gently.
“Mathias, ma’am.” he held his hand out to take hers.
“Nice to meet you,” she took his hand gently. “My name is Lila.”
Far off the in the distance he heard yelling and the whole house seemed to explode with action. People ran in the door clutching a body. The woman who was being carried had a bloody wound on her head. It looked pretty bad.
He took this opportunity to slip between the crowd’s legs and dart out of the front door. Whatever had just happened, it didn’t seem good. He briefly considered peeking around the Inn to see if he could find the noises in the forest, but deep down he know that being nosy never helped anyone. Plus, his brow was sweatin and if he didn’t get to the river soon he’d probably pass out.
He descended the grassy hill, imagining what he could have heard. Next time he came here he would ask them what it was.