This is a cheat; no, let’s say “repurposed,” “upcycled,” “curated.” First posted in response to three writing prompts, now posted [un-re-edited] for one: Tale Weaver #290: campfire

. . . when the road darkens

Ancient willows who wept at many a thing. Had seen so much sorrow pass beneath their boughs as to feel that the world was made of darkness, of evil, of pain. Even when the sun, at highest point, broke through the treescape, and warmed their cold roots, they still sighed. For the light would leave, perhaps this time, not come again. Their heartwood grew in ragged circles, elliptical rings, dingy and drab like their world view.

And, it might have remained so had not the Company camped for the night in the clearing. Ever careful, always watchful, only a small amount of dislodged twigs, snapped branches, and dry leaves were gathered for the fire. Sitting stones were procured from a number littering the open space as if alphabet blocks knocked over and flung by a fussy, cranky child.

After the exertions of the day, all merely wanted food, an hour of warm, and conflageration over tomorrow’s wanderings. T’would not be simple tasks. Sparker, the best fire starter, enacted her ritual, and pulling out the sparking stone from the leather pouch dangling from the sash about her waist, whispered, “Fire, fire, bright, with your warmth we delight, bless us with your flame tonight.” Nothing. No spark leaped from crystal to leaves. Fearing that her numbness of mind and spirit had dulled the stone, she rebuilt the fire, uttering these most ancient of words. Words so eld that none spoke, thought or dreamed in the language. Again, she tried the spark, wishing heart upon heart, the fire took. The others, equally numb, shivered, blowing on their cold-coloured hands, stomping frozen-foot.

“Are we to die of cold, rather than at the blades of our enemies?,” Bitterroot complained. She had been unusually bitter today, as if she had alum for blood running in her veins. “What use if we are to be found cold, useless and motionless like these stupid rocks?”

“Harrumph!” The rock beneath her spouted. “Shows what you know of things. You are sitting on a STONE, woman, not a ROCK.”

“Double harrumph,” grumped Archer’s seat. “A rock is a small piece of stone, suitable for use as a projectile. Enough said.”

“Here, here,” their sitting stones cheered. Each stone rocked back and forth with delight.

“Getting your rocks off, hey Mr. Stones?,” Bitterroot whispered under her breath, hoping that stones didn’t read lips or minds. Then again, the rocking motion was soothing. Way up a tiny slice of sky was all stars and night glows. The image took her back to this morning, was it only 1/2 day away?, lying in her hammock, gently swinging with the ship’s breathing. The rise and fall of the ocean. The careening cries of the gulls. Smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls stronger even that tang of the sea. Each had a role to play on the journey. This morning had been taste tester. Poison control. Bliss.

A big wet drop splopped on her head. Sploosh, another hit dead-centre. The nightscape was black and sparkly. No clouds skudded or menaced. “Definitely not my day,” she mumbled through clenched teeth. Her next upward gaze was met by the downward fall of water. “Sea water,” she questioned wiping the salty liquid from around her mouth. Her rock, no stone, was shaking again – this time felt like laughter. She jumped up. “Salty rain from a clear sky. The best place to bed down; I think not.” With two long strides, she was at her pack, ready to swing it up as she stashed the hilt of her sword through her waist sash.

Throughout all this, Captain’s eyes never stopped moving. Focusing on the group. The frustrated Sparker, the irritated and irritating Bitterroot, tired-eyed Archer bopped awake by her stone’s grumped comment. Little Dagger’s head dropped down to her chest, breathing slowed. Then, jerk, she pulled her head back up. Thankfully, Cookery’s stone was close. When Dagger’s body slumped, geometrically, her trajectory should put her head on Cookery’s shoulder.

Captain was always keenly aware of her environment. The smell of decaying vegetation. Small and larger ruffles under the leaves. Sometimes accompanied by shrill chirps or baritone chips. Pattern of starlight on the ground. Wind from the west, moving high and fast across the tree-top-scape. She was drenched in Bitterroot’s shower. The liquid had the strange scent of bark, and the salty taste of tears. The trees were crying? But why? Was it the wind that keened above them, or the trees’ sobs?

They were new to this place, following orders. Creeper shoved a hastily sketched map into her hands as they left his ship, The Hand-Maiden anchored off Call Way Bay, in a skiff rowed by 6 of his finest. Captain sighed. Different times, different strategies, different games. Dropped off on a spit of sand, it’s top barely clearing the high tide waters, they waited silently for the tide to reveal their bridge to the mainland. Captain wondered if these women could work as a team. Each had a personality flaw, herself included, that precluded smooth team work. Even the simple task of eating breakfast became a battle of wills over the last cinnamon bun, last of the blend, last of the butter, and most strenuously, last of the coffee. Who ever played dirtiest was sure to win. Dirty wars needed dirty warriors. What in peace time would be looked at in disgust, in war was the stuff of medal-striking and ribbon threading.

Having trudged 1/2 a day through a haunted landscape of burnt over trees, blasted rock, swirling fog, biting thorn bushes and strangling vines, all had looked forward to a night here. A space marked safe by Creeper. But it did not seem so now, with rocks, no stones, who spoke, trees who wept, and a groundscape that seemed alive. Captain called up “Willow, why do you weep so? We gathered carefully. The fire is only for a bit of warmth, then will be most assuredly deadened. We will be more respectful of the glade’s inhabitants. We come from a land where stones do not talk, and trees only weep raindrops not tears.”

The willow bent lower, the boughs groaning like arthritic limbs. “We weep because we are sad. Your troupe is most interesting – women warriors! But, alas we shall ne’er see you again.”

“How can you be so sure?,” Cookery called up. “Have others disappeared from underneath your boughs?” Cookery might seem to be the least of them – taking care of their needs such as hunger. But, for all the domesticity about her, she was the most inquisitive of them. To her, knowledge was the feast.

Her question set off a chorus of wails and a storm of tears. All below, as they dried faces on sleeves, gave her a look, one that she was used to. It was not easy being the one with the scholarly mind and the frying pan.

“They go with glad hearts and happy songs. If return at all, it is as defeated souls with no spark left inside them. With our height, we can see far. See the cruelty and the pain. See why so few follow the trail east – only west.”

“We shall make a pledge, then, that for tonight, none will think of such things. We will warm ourselves by the fire. We shall do as usual in camp: sing, eat, talk, tell stories.  We will teach you the words to our songs that you might sing too. And, then whence we come east, your songs t’will guide us.” It was the quiet Blade who spoke. She had said but 4 words all day, yet now she was making eloquent speeches to weeping willows.

The glade was filled with the loud rustlings of yes. “And, we shall teach you our rhymes that you might say them loudly, and we t’will hear. We can make music and dance. You are right, we need not think of the morrow, nor of the past.”

Bitterroot put down her bundle and undid her sword. She curtsied solemnly to the trees and stones, apologizing for her rude behaviour. She told her companions she would keep the faith. The sparking crystal glowed bright; soon a long shadows danced around the firelight. Cookery’s Forager’s Stew smelt like heaven. The willows, and various creatures of the glade, all spoke at once, until Twigfell, the treeleader, organized their conversations. The women listened, adding their own pieces to the tales being woven. Even little Dagger was awake; she eyes growing bigger with each story. Some were beyond her young understanding, but she pretended she knew of such things. She was careful to giggle only when the others laughed. Giggling out of turn would prove her childishness. She no long felt a child.

Archer brought out her flute, and accompanied by the noises of the night forest, she played songs of their home. Blade and Bitterroot repeated the willows’ rhymes, learning them to heart. Pairs of eyes appeared all around the glade. Many sorts of voices joined in songs and in poems. Tonight was tonight. The past was whence the words and music came. Nothing more. The future was the next tale, the next dance, the next joke.

Captain smiled. The tension left her neck and eyes, at least for the moment. Perhaps this troupe will make a unit; they were one that night [around the campfire].

image: Matheus Bertelli (