The Adventures of Larson and Garrett, The Sleeping Tree
by Aaron Dennis
Other TTTV stories by Aaron Dennis
Larson had met Mr. Bright once. He had come over to talk to his dad about something. Mr. Bright had also joined the hunting party, and a magick bow was indeed intriguing, but Larson wondered what good it truly was if no one knew what to shoot. Then, he realized he had dreamt of the tree again.
“Michael,” Larson whispered.
“Have you dreamt about a tree lately?”
“A tree,” Michael asked while wiping his nose on his sleeve.
“Use a cloth, Michael,” Mrs. Graham interrupted.
The older boy smiled sheepishly and turned beet red. All the kids were staring at him.
“I ain’t got a cloth,” he mumbled.
Mrs. Graham returned to Leon’s Triumph and kept on reading.
“Yeah, an old tree that looks like a mean, old man,” Larson maintained.
Michael shook his head, and asked one of the little girls. Her eyes grew wide, but she shook her head and pretended to go to sleep. Larson arched a brow, looked at Michael, and they started whispering to the other kids about an old tree. Minutes later, the children were in an uproar.
“Settle down, boys and girls,” Mrs. Graham chastised. “What’s the meaning of all this ruckus?”
Larson took the initiative and told her about his dream. Some of the other boys and girls agreed and provided their rendition. Mr. Thatcher overheard and snatched Larson by the collar of his tunic.
“Ow,” he squealed.
“What’s this about a tree?” he demanded.
“It’s a mean, old man that looks like a tree. He says his name is Rollesforth,” Larson barked. Mr. Thatcher turned white as a ghost. “You know about it?”
Mr. Thatcher didn’t answer. He looked at Mrs. Graham. The room had grown silent.
“That sounds like a reaper,” Thatcher finally said.
“Don’t reapers harvest the dead,” an old woman asked.
“That’s, yes, but it ain’t that kind o’ reaper,” Thatcher argued. “This one’s a tree that casts magick.”
“What’s it doin’ with kids then,” someone asked.
“I don’t know, an’ I ain’t said that’s what we got on our hands,” Thatcher fired back. “The children been dreamin’ about it, though, an’ that’s got to mean somethin’.”
Hushed whispers were followed by Mrs. Graham stating that there was no need for alarm or to frighten the children. Someone else then corrected Thatcher and said that it was not a reaper, but a treant. Then, they argued over names, before someone else shouted that there weren’t any more monsters in the Third Age.
“Who made you an expert?” Thatcher howled.
“It’s got ta’ be orcs or ogres,” an old woman declared.
“Or trolls,” another professed.
A heated discussion took place for the better part of five minutes. Mrs. Graham ordered them all outside if they were going to behave like the children they were supposed to be supervising. Eventually, they quieted down, and she was able to finish Leon’s Triumph. It ended with Sir Leon striking the evil wizard down and being rewarded with marriage to the king’s beautiful daughter.
About another hour went by. Mrs. Graham instructed all the kids to relax and put their heads down. Most of them drifted off to sleep. It was almost morning by then. The candles had all nearly snuffed out. The morning light broke through the windows. Larson woke again to the sound of the hunting party’s return.
A few of the bigger men were standing in the doorway. They requested everyone move to the communal dining hall. It was mostly a mead hall for the adults, but during celebrations, weddings, and other ceremonies, everyone gathered for good food, music, and dancing. Larson got up and shoved past everyone. He found Largo outside, chatting with a young woman. She was a thin blonde with a bow slung over her shoulder. Instead of the usual drab dresses customarily worn by young women, she bore a tight, leather vest and leather leggings with riding boots.
“Excuse me,” Largo mumbled and approached his brother.
“It’s a reaper. Did you find it?”
“What,” Largo asked with furrowed brow.
“I dreamt of the tree again and so did some of the other kids.”
The townsfolk had already begun their move into the mead hall. Largo motioned with his head to join them. As he trotted along with the adults, Larson followed behind. He relayed the previous discussions to his brother and added that if he wanted to marry that girl with the bow, he had to kill the reaper himself like Leon did when he killed the wizard and married the princess. Largo nearly doubled over with laughter.
“What are you laughing at?” Larson accosted.
Largo’s face twisted in surprise. “You, you little mutt. Who said I want to marry anybody?
“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you grow up?”
“No,” Largo smiled. “All you’re supposed to do is follow your heart, and that can mean anythin’, but they really think it’s a reaper?”
Larson shrugged indifferently. By then, he was wondering what following your heart meant. For him it meant to go and find the reaper himself, or with his brother, and chop it up like firewood.
The two finally entered the dining hall. Some of the townsfolk had already started a fire in the hearth at the far end of the wooden building. It was a nice place; one big room like the schoolhouse, but about twice as deep. Thick, squared posts supported the roof. A couple of sparrows had nested in the rafters. There were tapestries depicting the founding of Flotsam; blue and green cloths with images of a shipwreck, men and women gathering debris, and construction of the town.
Once Larson and Largo sat down to recapitulate on the preceding events, servers came by with fruits and drink. The blonde girl sat across from the brothers at the long, wooden table.
“Did you hear,” she asked.
“Hear what,” Largo asked.
“Now, they’re saying it’s a reaper.”
Larson nodded vigorously. The girl smiled.
“He looks like more and more like you every day,” she smiled at Largo.
“Come now, Nyomi,” Largo chuckled. “Don’t insult the boy.”
Fatigue was starting to set in. Some of them were getting giggly, others scarfed down food, and still more put their heads down for a moment’s respite.
“Anyway,” Nyomi started, “reapers cast magick.”
“But they’re vulnerable to fire,” Largo jumped in.
“I suppose…but where do you think this thing is?”
“I saw it on a hilltop in a clearing,” Larson said.
Everyone awake enough to speak was involved in chatter. It became increasingly difficult for the three to converse, especially when old Mr. Thatcher joined them and began a tirade about the dangers of magick.
“Reapers are old creatures; made in The Second Age, they were,” Thatcher grumbled. “Spiteful things with nasty spells like magick arrows, freezin’ winds, an’ their wooden claws got a touch o’ poison. If they scratch you, you get sick, see?”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Nyomi said, waving her hand about. “Larson said he saw it. Where? When?”
“In a dream,” the boy replied. “Lots of us dreamt it.”
He yawned, sipped from a wooden cup, and put his head down, resting the right side of his face on folded arms.
“Is that somethin’ reapers do? Invade dreams? How is this thing callin’ the children?” Largo blurted out.
Thatcher remained quiet. Nyomi kept her eyes on the old man. Everyone’s face was somewhat droopy from exhaustion. Bags had formed beneath their eyes, and their pallor had paled. Thatcher suddenly leaned over next to Nyomi and whispered that they should meet outside in about five minutes. She eyed him, mildly baffled. Before she asked her question, Thatcher claimed he didn’t want to upset the children further, so Nyomi nodded. Largo glanced between the two, and when Nyomi nodded, he decided to wait for the coming explanation.
A few minutes later, many of children had dozed off, either in their parents’ laps or with heads and arms sprawled over the table, which was growing increasingly encumbered with cooked meats. Thatcher made to stand, it took him multiple tries. Once he was up and moving for the doors, Nyomi followed and gestured to Largo with a movement of her head to follow. They gathered outside in the warmth of the morning sun. A sweet wind blew through their hair.
“What’s happenin’?” Largo began.
“We need a sound plan if we’re goin’ to tackle a reaper,” Thatcher explained.
“Just what do you know about these things?” Nyomi demanded.
“Mmm, not enough,” Thatcher admitted.
“Maybe, we should send for help from Half Pine or even send someone to Pallisade. City mages might know a thing or two,” Largo ventured.
“An’ risk the disappearance o’ more children?” Thatcher grumbled.
“Well…we can still send for help while we search for it,” Nyomi suggested.
“Aye,” Thatcher agreed, but his eyes had drifted towards the northern woods.
The Gettys child had been spotted by her sibling wandering in that direction. As they were so involved in deliberations, they had failed to notice Larson hiding behind the large, wooden door. He had heard everything. I need to figure a way to find that tree. Then, I can tell everyone where it is.
Soon as he heard their discussion come to an end, he ran back for the table, hopped in the chair, and stuck a chicken leg in his mouth. No one was any the wiser.
“So it’s settled,” Largo claimed. “Larson.”
“You’re goin’ to stay with Nyomi’s parents tonight.”
“She and I are goin’ to go to Pallisade tonight to find some mages in the city. They might be able to help us out,” Largo stated.
“An’ I’m goin’ to Half Pine to see if I can find some help there…might as well ask about your da while I’m there. His delay in comin’ home troubles me,” Thatcher said. Largo shot him a look of annoyance. “Oh,” Thatcher caught himself and smiled. “I’m sure he’s fine, though.”
Larson smiled, too. Staying with an elderly couple provided an easy out for sneaking off into the night.
“You just stay put, and mind your manners ‘til we get back, okay?” Nyomi chirped.
“You got it,” Larson grinned.
Thatcher then called everyone’s attention and relayed the plan. The hunting party was going to rest up for a few hours, after which they were to roam the forest again. In the meantime, the kids were provided a chance to go home, but were supposed to be back at the schoolhouse before sunset. That put a small damper on Larson’s plan, but it wasn’t exactly a formidable obstacle. During the hunters’ second trip, Largo, Nyomi, and Thatcher were going to go in search of help.
The next few hours passed by in relative quietude. The townsfolk were scared and exhausted. Largo then announced it was time to go. The four of them first made a trip to the farms at the south end of town. The furrows of corn, lettuce, and beans were identical to the eastern farms, but two families owned tiny beef ranches.
“They got cows here,” Larson said.
“That’s right,” Nyomi smiled. “My mum and dad own this ranch.”
Their house was much nicer than Larson’s. It was a two-story, same as his, but the walls were painted white, and the shutters were a dark brown. They also had a portico attached to the front of the house with rocking chairs.
Nyomi took them inside. The interior was as lavish as the exterior. They even had some nice, colorful flower plants in rectangular, wooden pots.
“Does this mean I get to see your room?” Largo joked.
“I don’t think now’s the time, Largo,” she muttered.
He looked down. It was a stupid thing to say when so much was at stake, but he claimed the fatigue was to blame. Nyomi shrugged it off, but Thatcher had to hold back his laughter.
The house was empty. Nyomi vanished into the kitchen to pack for the trip. Largo and Larson exchanged a look.
“Where are they, her parents,” the boy asked.
“They were patrollin’ the town along with other families,” Thatcher said.
“They should be back any minute,” Nyomi hollered from behind the walls.
“We’ll have to wait until they get back then,” Largo yelled.
“I have to pack anyway,” Nyomi replied.
“Why don’t you go an’ pack, too? I’ll stay with the boy until the Etreeses return,” Thatcher volunteered.
Largo nodded. He then patted Larson’s shoulder, told him not to fret, and went to find Nyomi. Larson frowned, sat down on a long, cushioned chair, and patted the sides. It was like a bench but nice and soft. He looked up questioningly at the smiling Mr. Thatcher.
“That’s called a couch, boy, an’ if you ever make lots o’ money, you can buy one, too,” he laughed.
A moment later, Nyomi and Largo appeared just long enough to say goodbye. Moments passed before the Etreeses came into the house. They were elderly, but not as old as Mr. Thatcher, who excused himself and spoke privately to the Etreeses in the kitchen. When they all came back, they looked at Larson.
“Well,” Mr. Thatcher started, “guess you best behave now. I’ll see you soon.”
“Be careful on your way to Half Pine,” Mrs. Etrees said. Thatcher nodded and left. “So, Larson, how are you feeling?”
“Fine,” he mumbled.
“Hungry, boy,” Mr. Etrees asked.
Larson shook his head indifferently. They all remained quiet, but then the old couple sat down on either side of the boy. They told him everything was going to be fine, and that there was really nothing to worry about because although terrible things happened, good things also happened.
More time drifted by very slowly. After eating a sandwich, Larson rifled through some old books in the study that the Etreeses kept in immaculate condition. Larson liked all the different sizes of the books, the color of the leather bounds, the feel of the pages. Eventually, the sun started to set, and the interior grew dim. He walked around the large house to find the Etreeses. Mrs. Etrees was in the kitchen, dicing onions, and throwing them into a cooking pot over a small spit by the window.
“Getting dark,” she mumbled.
“Yeah,” Larson agreed. “Can I go out and take a look at the cows real quick?”
She smiled and nodded. A smirk played on Larson’s lips, but for a very different reason. He cheerfully walked out onto the portico then rounded the house. He saw a couple of large, black bulls, but they didn’t so much as notice his presence. Larson walked to the back of the house, found an open barrel with torches sticking out, and took one. Then, he walked to the small shack a few yards from the house.
The wooden door creaked when he pulled it open. He looked around. Puffy clouds were swooping across the sky. The eastern horizon was turning orange. Wind ruffled his hair. He quickly started a search for flint. Once he found some, he bolted across the ranch and west into town.
A wave of guilt flooded the boy. He knew that the Etreeses were going to feel responsible for losing sight of him. He knew that his brother would be upset, too, but the nagging desire to be a man, to play an active role in helping the town had been overpowering. No one writes songs or books about cowards, about people who run away or hide from danger.
By the time he made it into town, it was twilight. The brightest of stars speckled the dreary, bluish-black sky. Most of the clouds had passed, but there were streaks of gray that seemed painted into the expanse high overhead. Larson then saw torchlight. There were people milling about, obviously heading towards the schoolhouse to repeat the events of the night before.
Hiding behind a thorny bush, the lad waited for the bulk of the townsfolk to vanish behind the dining hall. Once he felt safe, he darted across the grassy plain and skirted the thicker foliage of the northern woods. There was a path that led to a very small clearing where sometimes the children played hide and seek. He located the path, snuck into the clearing, and stopped at the small pine at the center of the clearing. A few notches, initials, and names had been carved into the wood. It wasn’t a large tree, but big enough to hold a history of childhood, of boys and girls struggling to become men and women. Some of the children had recently lost that struggle.
A new emotional wave washed over Larson. Guilt had been replaced by awe, with something like fate or destiny. He was Larson Ross, son of Mathew Ross, a soldier. Courage was in his blood, somewhere. He took a deep breath to find it before venturing farther into the woods to search for the reaper.
His dad had always taught him and Largo that when one ventures into unknown or uncharted regions, it’s imperative to leave a trace in order to find the way back, or for someone else to find that brave adventurer.
“Adventurers aren’t reckless, boy,” Mathew had said. “They’re cunning and intelligent. They don’t blunder or leave things up to chance. Every move is a calculated endeavor.”
Traipsing carefully through pines, bushes, and over the scant few boulders, Larson broke off branches, or drew lines in the dirt wherever there was enough visible soil. Finally, it became too dark to see, and he knew he was far enough in to strike the flint and light his torch without drawing attention. It took him a couple of tries, but once he got it going, he held the torch up, and meandered deeper into the woods.
A couple of times he came across big, ugly spiders with their webs just inches from his face. He didn’t like spiders and usually ran around the house frantically screaming for his brother to kill them, but that wasn’t going to happen this time; Larson had steeled himself, and although his throat tightened, and tears stung his eyes, the spiders were on their webs. They weren’t going to jump anywhere.
Ducking under a web, breaking off a pine branch, and continuing farther in, he started to imagine what it would be like to really find the reaper. Before his ruminations solidified, he thought he heard music, something like the wooden wind chimes the miller had outside his building. He stopped in his tracks to listen.
The sound wasn’t coming from anywhere detectable; it was more like a memory. The boy furrowed his brow. Then, the sound washed over him again. It beckoned It called him deeper still into the woods. Like a dream, he found himself walking aimlessly, but with purpose. In the thickest part of the forest, where the pines were only feet away from each other, the sound turned into a voice, a woman’s voice. It didn’t say anything specific, or intelligible, though. By then, Larson’s feet were moving of their own accord, and he was too drunk from the sound of the woman’s voice to notice that a clearing grew visible through the pines.
A sudden fear froze him on the spot. A strange dualism had formed within him. The real Larson, the awake Larson, knew that danger was afoot; the reaper was only yards away, but the other Larson, the dreaming Larson, wanted to keep moving. He thought of his dad’s disappearance, his brother venturing off to find a mage in the city, Mr. Thatcher’s trip to Half Pine, and that the Etreeses were probably worried sick. Shaking the cobwebs from his mind, he took a few steps, and saw a hill through the pines.
“Come to me, Son,” the musical voice seemed to say. “I need your help.” Larson thought of the fact that he didn’t know his mother, that there was no way this was her voice, yet there was some doubt. “Please, Son, I need you. I love you.”
Cautiously, the boy took more steps, broke through the lower branches of younger pines, and found himself walking steadily up a slight incline onto the barren hilltop. An old, grayed tree protruded from the center of the hill. It was a squat tree that looked a little like a person with two, long, gnarled limbs, resembling arms, growing out of the thing’s sides.
Once Larson was but a few feet from the creature, he knew the end was near. The reaper had led him to an untimely demise. It slowly lurched at the boy, but before scooping him up, Larson hurled the burning torch, envisioning a flaming reprisal.
As it sailed through the air, the orange light reflected off the aged wood, giving it a malevolent, orange glow. It struck the trunk with a dull, clunky sound. Then, the torch rested at the reaper’s exposed roots. It did not catch fire as Larson had assumed.
Suddenly, he was twelve feet off the ground. Rough, wooden fingers gripped him painfully on his sides. The tree squeezed the air form the boy, leaned its trunk back, opened a nightmarish maw, and dropped the boy. Larson closed his eyes, fearing the worst, hating himself for his blunder, praying that his brother and father might forgive him for pretending to be a hero.
Something struck the boy’s flank. He suddenly landed on something hard and felt dirt on his face.
“You idiot! What are you doin’?” Largo howled.
With a great gasp, Larson opened his eyes. His brother had found him and caught him before he dropped into oblivion. Nyomi was also there with a flaming arrow nocked. She let loose the projectile. It struck the reaper’s trunk with a twang, and the creature groaned an awful wail, a wretched sound like several bones breaking simultaneously. With one wooden arm it swiped at the brothers, with the other, it pointed knobby fingers at Nyomi and fired a volley of blue, magickal spheres at the young woman.
The magick struck its target. Nyomi cried out and smashed into the ground, but the brothers had rolled away from the tree’s grasp.
“Take shelter,” Largo commanded and drew his sword.
As Larson hopped out of the way, Largo swung at the branch. The blade knocked splinters from the wood, but did little else. The reaper swiped at Largo with a limb, and shot forth a misty flurry of ice with the other hand.
The bone wracking frost created such a wave of pain that Largo dropped his sword, turned, and ran. By then, Nyomi had recovered and fired another flaming arrow. With two small flames burning the tree, it creaked and groaned again, and as it readied itself to send more magick through air, and while Largo recovered his blade, Larson ran to the tree, nabbed the torch, and dropped it into the creature’s open maw. It suddenly went up in such a gale of fires that everyone took off in separate directions. The three warriors had a clear view of the largest bonfire they’d ever seen.
The most horrendous shouts erupted from the burning tree; its arms flailing frantically. Larson found his way to Largo. The older brother placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and pulled him in close. Nyomi limped over, holding her flanks. Finally, the tree exploded, sending shards of flaming debris out in a horrifying gust. The three crashed to the ground to avoid retribution. A chunk of wood landed on Largo’s face. He yelped in agony, but the wood had burned his flesh so quickly that the chunk stuck to his cheek, and he had to pry it off also burning his hands.
“Largo,” Nyomi cried.
“I’m okay,” he growled. “Larson…you, you did it. You killed the reaper.”
The boy’s mouth was agape. It was true. He did kill the monster that threatened the town, that threatened the sanctity of childhood, but he hadn’t done it alone. In fact, he could not have done it without his brother’s aid, without Nyomi’s help.