Darkened Paths

The mushroom-eaters came down from the peaks like a thunderclap. They rode in formation with enough numbers to overwhelm Dene’s wall. It was never built to withstand an actual invasion, and was more a symbolic marker of inside and outside.

Winn stood before the gates with the rest of the village council. He clutched the hilt of his father’s sword and felt bowed beneath the weight of the elder sash. Two figures detached themselves from the massed army, rode halfway along the dead-grass plains, then dismounted and continued on foot.

Winn strode out to meet them alone. The mushroom-eaters were short and pale like the color of slate. They wore no armor and carried no weapons, but Winn knew that wasn’t uncommon for their leaders—the warriors behind them would do all the killing. Rumors said it was the mushrooms that gave them the magic they carried in their gems.

Winn never thought the reason why mattered much, only that they were a rockslide poised above his village.

The mushroom-eater on the right stepped forward, pressed his hand to his chest, and bowed his head in respect. Winn returned the gesture, as was polite. “Thank you for coming to meet with us, Village Elder. I do not relish being here under such circumstances.”

“What can I do for you, One of the Darkened Paths?” Winn used the old name for them, which brought a ghost of a smile to the mushroom-eater’s face.

“Deep in our most hallowed caverns, there is an object. It glows a blue light and it is extremely important to our people. That object was taken two days ago, and we have reason to believe it is currently in your village. I come to humbly request its return.”

Winn’s jaw worked. He didn’t know of any glowing objects, and he didn’t think his people would be stupid enough to do anything to provoke the mushroom-eaters. They may be strange and distasteful, but they were powerful.

“Honored Path, I cannot say whether we have such a thing or not, but I can make sure every home and every cellar is searched.”

“See that you do, Elder. I dislike making threats, but if we do not get what we seek within one day, we will come and do the searching for you.”

Winn’s fingers tensed. “I understand.”

“Very good. I apologize for this, Elder, but what was taken was extremely important. We cannot wait long.”

With that, the two mushroom-eaters turned and walked back to their mounts.

Winn returned to his people with fury in his chest. Gallach stood nervously with the other councilors. “Call a meeting. Someone stole from the gods damned mushroom-eaters and now we’re all fucked.”

Gallach turned nearly as pale as the eaters themselves.

#

The village of Dene was more like a sprawling metropolis. It started out a long time ago as a collection of several families, and slowly grew to encompass much of the plains at the base of the Shaway Mountains. Trade with the mushroom-eaters caused their population to double over the last decade, and Winn thought it might double again soon enough. Housing and sanitation were constant problems, and though he spent his youth riding the plains, hunting and fighting the Mari to the north and the Rook to the south, now he was an old administrator more used to ordering repairs than to mustering warriors.

“The walls are stout,” Farraden said. “If the eaters want to come, let them come. We have two thousand in the watch and we could arm twice that number if needed.”

“Two thousand green boys and girls with no experience in the field,” Ragil countered. “You know how the eaters are.”

“That wall won’t stand to their magic for long,” Gallach said.

The Council argued while Winn watched. Toward the back, Tanona sat with hooded eyes. His daughter was whip-thin and athletic with his dark eyes and his wife’s auburn hair. She wore it tied back and wrapped in a tight bun like a warrior, and she carried herself like a chieftain, back straight and eyes hard. Every year the village held athletic competitions, and every year Tanona won whatever contest she entered. She was his pride, the wind through his hair, the hoofs beneath his feet.

And now she was quiet, which was extremely unlike her.

After a while, it was agreed that they’d begin a search while secretly arming as many men as possible. This was foolish—even if they could muster ten thousand, they’d never stand against the eaters. They all knew what would happen if those monsters got in through their city walls: looting, killing, raping, worse. The eaters would demolish their village and thousands, tens of thousands would die.

It happened before, and it would happen again.

The Council broke up. Winn remained seated in the darkened room while the other men filtered out in groups and pairs, all of them speaking in quiet, anxious tones. “Tanona,” Winn called out. “Stay with me.”

His daughter hesitated, then joined him at the table. She sat at his left and leaned her elbows onto the table. “Do you really think they’ll come?” she asked.

“Of course. You heard what they did at Cuno five years ago.”

She scowled. “I always thought that was a rumor.”

“It wasn’t a rumor. I spoke with several refugees and the stories are all the same. If we do not give the eaters what they want, they will break our walls with their magic and slaughter everyone until they find it.”

Tanona stared down at her hands. She didn’t speak, and something felt strange, twisted in Winn’s guts. His daughter was fierce and proud and rarely held her tongue during Council meetings.

“What is wrong, daughter?” She still didn’t meet his gaze. Winn sat up straight. “If you’re afraid, there’s nothing—“

She looked up angrily. “I’m not afraid.”

“Then why do you look like you are?”

She held his gaze for another long moment then deflated again. “I know where to find what the eaters want.”

Winn leaned back in his chair. He felt the first stirrings of horror deep inside of his guts as his daughter still refused to look at him. His prideful little girl, the strongest person he’d ever met. When she was three, she insisted on wrestling with the other little boys. When she was six, she won her first archery competition. At ten, she won all the running races, and at eleven, she excelled at weapons. By the time she was a teenager, Winn knew she’d be the best warrior this region had ever known.

Now he wondered if that hadn’t been a curse as much as a blessing.

“What did you do?”

“It was a dare. Gonde son Gallach said I couldn’t sneak into the mushroom caves and come back out with proof, and you know I can’t take a challenge from a cow fucker like him, and—“

“What did you do?” Winn spoke quietly, pleading.

Tanona still didn’t look up. “I snuck into the caverns. It wasn’t that hard, really. I went as deep as I could until I came to this room, a really big room full of those mushrooms. It smelled like dirt and vomit. Scattered all over were these glowing blue rocks about the size of my fist. I thought they wouldn’t notice if one was missing, so I grabbed it and brought it back.”

“Where is it now?”

“Back in my rooms, beneath a floorboard.”

“Does anyone know?”

“Gonde knows.” She grimaced and shook her head. “He won’t speak of it. He will—“

Winn leaned toward his daughter and grabbed her hands. She looked surprised at the sudden contact. “You will go back and get that stone. You will present it to me before the Council, and you will apologize. They will want to cut your hair. I will let them.”

She stared for a long moment. Cutting her hair would shame her deeply. She would be marked for a while, and that was less than she deserved.

“Yes, Father.”

“Good.” He squeezed her hands. “Run now. If we’re lucky, we’ll survive this.”

His daughter, the center of his world, stood and left the room.

Winn collapsed in on himself.

It’d been a long time since he felt broken.

#

The leaders of the mushroom-eaters rode out to meet Winn. Behind him, the Council stood arrayed in battle gear, their armor glittering in the sun. Tanona stood beside him, stripped of her fine cloak, her chain, and her curved sword. Her hair was cut down to the scalp. She held her chin high, his gloriously stubborn daughter, but he saw the quiver at the edge of her lip.

The mushroom-eater from earlier that day approached on foot again. “You’ve come so soon.” He sounded surprised and pleased.

“I found what you seek.” Winn held out a small brown leather bag. Inside was the rock, a rough-cut gem that glowed a strange, disturbing blue light. “I hope this will buy peace between our people.”

The mushroom-eater stepped forward and accepted the bag. He opened it, touched the gem inside, and nodded once. “This will be a start.”

Tanona tensed and Winn touched her arm to calm her. “There is nothing more I can offer you, Honored Path.”

“Is that your daughter, standing beside you?”

Winn let out a sharp breath. “Yes, Honored One. Her name is Tanona.”

“I see that she’s been shamed recently, perhaps only today.”

“Yes, she has.” Winn realized his mistake—they should’ve shorn Tanona after this was all over, or he should’ve left her behind. But he wanted her to see the people she robbed and to fully understand the terrible danger of what she’d done, and now he felt regret spread in his guts.

The mushroom-eaters knew their ways, and this leader was shrewd.

“Tell me, Elder. Why would you shear your own daughter on the day we come riding to your gates?”

“My daughter is a prideful girl, but a foolish one. What crimes she committed, she will pay for them in our own ways. You have your gem.”

The eater’s teeth were sharp and crooked. “It was you, wasn’t it, girl?”

Tanona’s chin lifted. Winn gave her arm another warning squeeze, but she shook him off.

“Yes, it was me. I took the gem, and now I’m paying for it.”

Winn wanted to scream in her face. The damn girl didn’t see what was happening here, but a smile broke out across the eater’s face.

“Do you understand what these gems do?”

“I don’t.”

“Do you know how many outsiders have ever touched one? Or have seen where we keep them?”

“I don’t, and I don’t know why—“

The eater cut her off. “None have seen. None have touched. Except for you.” His eyes narrowed, and Winn couldn’t tell if he looked impressed or angry.

“She will be punished,” Winn said. “We’ve already shorn her. I will lash her for this. I will do so publicly. I will make sure she understands.”

“Not enough.” The eater stared at Tanona and she took a step back, away from the man, but Winn would not release her now, not with so many lives at stake behind them.

“What do you want? What more can you need?”

“I assumed we’d never find the person responsible, but instead you paraded her in front of us, and now I must insist. I want the girl. She will be punished in our way.”

“No,” Tanona said.

“Be quiet,” Winn hissed then looked at the eater. “This is my daughter. You must understand that. I will not give her to you.”

“Then we will come and take her. That would be preferable to simply riding away. My warriors don’t like gathering for no reason. They see your little city as a prize, and if I turn them away and say there will be no blood and flesh for them today, they might be unhappy. So I beg you, give me an excuse to let my warriors feast.”

Winn’s hand trembled on his daughter’s arm. Tanona’s jaw flexed and her eyes were wide with fear, the whites juddering and shaking.

She pulled from Winn’s grip and stepped forward.

“I will go.”

Winn said nothing. The mushroom-eater stared at her with narrowed eyes.

“You know what this means, girl?”

Tanona bowed her head. “I stole the gem. I will suffer the consequences.”

“Daughter,” Winn said but when she turned back to him, her gaze was level and a smile quirked at the edge of her lips, and he remembered her as a small child crawling into his lap and laughing as he tickled her sides, then as a little girl running through the fields outside the village, then as a teenager throwing a spear for the first time and laughing so hard she couldn’t breathe, and he wanted his baby back, wanted to change whatever path led them to this place, but the mushroom-eater stepped forward and gently took Tanona by the wrist and tugged her along behind him, back toward his mount, back toward where the assembled warriors waited for retribution, and Winn stayed standing outside of the village long after the horde returned to its mountain fortress, long after the other councilors went back to their families, and he let the cold chill of evening and the damp of night dew soak his legs and creep up his back and freeze him there in that spot for the rest of his days.

ps, Okay next week I promise you’ll get a happy ending. Or at least an ambiguous, non-explicitly bad ending. Have a great week! And hit that little heart and share and do all that great stuff. Thanks a ton for reading! - DC