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The Orchard Ends (Lady Madeline pt. 8)

Madeline and Handsome got up with the sun. Miranda already had already gotten breakfast ready, a simple meal of oatmeal and wild berries. She and Roderick had already been busy, and they had already gotten together bundles of food and clothing for their journey.

“We’ll keep your books here,” Miranda said, “You’ll need your backpack. The books are not only useless where you’re going, but they’re also soaked. Once you’re cured, you can come back here and get them.”

“So you think I’ll be cured?” Madeline asked. She was surprised, after last night’s conversation this seemed very hopeful.

Miranda, however, did not answer. She just looked at Madeline, sadness in her eyes.

No one talked while they ate breakfast. Even Handsome, who always was very thankful for any food he got (especially the food he nicked from the table) only whimpered a polite “thank you.”

They finished up, did what few dishes there were, and got all their packs. Handsome’s looked almost like it belonged on a pony instead of a dog. “That’s because he’s almost the size of a pony,” Roderick said. Handsome just complained, “I can’t chew this, and it smells like food.”

They said goodbye to Miranda and stepped out onto the path through the orchard. Madeline and Handsome both returned to their size after a couple steps. Roderick, however, just flew, flapping his wings like a little hummingbird.

The road wasn’t hard, it was worn and smooth. According to Roderick, it got quite busy when the apples were in season. Since it was already October, most of the apples were gone, and so were all of the people who wanted to pick them.

It would take them two days to get to the queen’s court, less if they hurried. Madeline kept a quick pace, and Handsome mostly followed. For the first half of a day he did his best to chase every squirrel they found, and “water” every tree.

“That’s gross,” Madeline said, and it was. He must have peed a dozen times in the last half hour. When she thought about it, she wasn’t even sure how he still had any pee left.

“But no dogs have been here before!” Handsome said. Then, using more of a bark than words, he shouted, “I claim all of this place in the name of Dumb-dog! It’s mine! It’s mine! Mine! Mine!”

Madeline rolled her eyes, and Roderick sighed. “Handsome, you need to stop calling yourself that.”

Handsome stopped and tilted his head again in that same way that all confused dogs do. He got confused a lot, and while he was very friendly, Madeline did wish that he had a hint more common sense.

“Your name is Handsome. That’s what it says on your license, that is your name.” Madeline said.

“You mean it isn’t Dumb-dog?” Handsome sat in front of her (in her way), panting.

“No…” Madeline said, “It’s Handsome.”

“OK,” said the pooch, and went up and gave Madeline a very slobbery lick, right on the cheek. It was gross, but somehow Madeline was OK with it.

They came around the bottom of a hill, and the trees of the orchard stopped. There was small, grassy area and the path went straight into some thick, dark woods. It was like a wall of trees that went as far as they could see to their left and their right. The path looked dark, and, if Madeline had been by herself, she would have thought it looked a little scary.

“Now,” said Roderick, “before we go into the woods, we need to…” but he was too late. Handsome saw the line of trees in front of them and ran into them.

He shouted, “Animals and trees and smells and animals!” as he ran. Roderick, when he saw the dog racing forward, shouted, “STOP!” and flew after him. Madeline, seeing both of her friends disappearing behind the dark trees, sighed, and tried to run to keep up. Handsome was a kind dog, but this was getting old.

When she finally got into the woods, she found Roderick looking Handsome right in the eye and yelling, “Listen, we need to stay together! You can’t just go running around doing whatever you want! You… you…”

Madeline saw that he was angry, and she understood why, but she didn’t like his yelling at Handsome. Handsome meant well; he was just easy to excite. Still, he was a good dog and didn’t need to be yelled at. “So…” she said, “what were you going to tell us before we entered the woods?

“These are not ordinary woods,” Roderick said, “we cannot leave the path for any reason. These woods are enchanted. People who leave the path get lost. Some come out far from where they want to go. Those are the lucky ones. They only talk about dark creatures, giant spiders and creepy things that haven’t ever seen the day. Some never come out again. And some go in and come out… changed.”

Roderick paused. Madeline didn’t like the sound of how he said “changed,” what did he mean by that? Before she could ask, though, he went on, “They can’t speak, and they have turned all white. Animals that get lost forget how to talk, and people, people just mutter of the things happening in the dark.”

Handsome whined at this. Madeline tried to be brave but somehow couldn’t manage it. This was just scary.

“Things are mostly OK on this side of the river,” Roderick said.

“River?” Madeline asked. This was another thing that she didn’t know. A map would be really useful, or, even better, a guidebook. For some reason, though, she didn’t think many people would buy it. How many people wandered into Faewold, and how many of those knew where they were going? It didn’t sound like this place had many tourists.

“Yes. There is a river that runs through the middle of the woods. Most of the strange, dark things that happen only happen on the other side. So we should be safe for now. But once we get past the river, we must be very careful.”

“So,” Madeline asked, “how far until we get to the river?”

“It’s hard to say,” Roderick answered, “It depends on how long it takes us to find a big stick.”

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