"THE TRIP HOME"
I ate dinner a few hours later, treated once again at the Carrot Table. The entree was chicken with potatoes, green beans, and a big, chilled bottle of port with a flaky sweet dessert—“polem.” Brynn, not her father, served me. She looked amazing. She hurried here and there seemingly boundless with energy.
She had a smile for everyone. I wasn’t special in that regard, and that disappointed me. I was hoping it was brighter for me, but as far as I could tell, it wasn’t. I was just another customer.
I resolved not to get as drunk as I had the first night, dropped lots of coin on the table to pay for the meal and tip her, and walked back upstairs to my room without making a single attempt to chat up my pretty waitress.
I suppose I just wasn’t in the mood. I was a Vision Bearer—a Soul Giver. I had a “flower” inside me that belonged to another who had a burning hatred for the Evil Queen. I was meant to give it to her—Brynn, maybe? Or ... her father? It was a gift, Dr. Dunk assured me, not a curse. At least, that’s what he assumed. Soul Givers, evidently, were very rare.
I woke at first light, bathed, and packed my belongings for the trip home. Mr. Dinys stopped me at the door.
“Here,” he mumbled, thrusting a folded bit of parchment into my palm. “Brynn asked me to give this to you. She didn’t have the courage to last night.”
I glanced down at it.
“It’s our address. She wants you to write to her. I told her what you thought about her. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but ...” he eyed me critically “... you seem to have a decent head on your shoulders, so ... ah, what the hell, right?”
I was somewhat taken aback, but at least had the presence of mind to thank him and ask that he tell Brynn that I’d write soon, and that perhaps I’d be back this way sooner than later. He grunted, reached up and gave my shoulder a hard slap, and walked away.
I was halfway out of town when I spied the carriage service. They were typically expensive as hell, but I was in a great mood and so threw caution to the wind and inquired once I got inside the little wooden building. The Munchkin who ran the place grunted, “I can take you to the border, but no farther. Six gold.”
“Deal,” I said, and paid him. I waited while he got the horse and carriage ready—a good half-hour—then climbed in.
We were off.
A little voice in my head told me I might regret my decision when he got off the King’s Highway and made for the Yellow Brick Road.
The Yellow Brick Road. Ugh.
It wasn’t gold, as many legends claimed. (Those who thought it was gold were, unsurprisingly, from other Realms.) The stones weren’t painted, either. In fact, the yellow coloring was enchanted dragon piss.
That’s right. Dragon piss.
My father gave me the history. The Wicked Witch of the East’s great-to-the-fifth grandfather, or some similar relation a very long time ago, somehow got a dragon to piss on the road in order to locate a swindler who had stolen from him. If the swindler ever set foot on the road, which before that was merely whitewashed, the piss that colored the brick would color him, thereby making him easy to find.
The dragon set off and did its thing. It didn’t have to piss and piss and piss, but only relieve its bladder occasionally as it flew. The piss had been enchanted and so colored the road over long swaths when it struck, the magic spreading it as though there were thousands of gallons of it.
The swindler stepped on the road not long after and was instantly colored a pissy golden yellow, and was soon caught and punished.
The golden color remained. When Oz’s citizens—humans, Munchkins, and everything in-between—found out what it signified, efforts were made to punish the wizard, who fled, and then to repaint the road, which back then was named something utterly nondescript like “Cross Route 14B.”
Funnily enough, a movement emerged devoted to preserve the piss coloring. Petitions were circulated. Activists went door-to-door urging citizens to write the king, begging him to keep the road yellow.
It worked. The cursed piss, the king decreed, would not be painted over. Another generation and more petitions, and Cross Route 14B was renamed “The Yellow Brick Road.”
It became over time the main highway into the Emerald City. It became fashionable to live alongside it. New villages sprang up within two generations—almost overnight in these parts. Trade centered along it. The king himself, and then his daughter, who would become queen, and her sons and their kids took the Yellow Brick Road, when possible and sensible, instead of others they had traditionally taken. It must have been quite a sight to see a grand procession with a golden carriage coming up on the Yellow Brick Road. The Dragon Piss Road, as we locals call it.
But then the Wizard showed up, and it all went to crap.
These days the Dragon Piss Road is a dodgy route to take anywhere. The villages along it have since become overrun with bandits and cutthroats, dark and seedy places that one ventures into only when it becomes absolutely necessary.
The citizenry petitioned the Wizard to clean it up, who summarily dismissed them. He never traveled that road, he sniffed, so why should he care?
The driver got on the Piss Road an hour later. I probably should have jumped off way before then, but indecision and tiredness (I did not want to walk any farther than necessary if I could help it) kept me sitting and stewing in the back.
He got to the border a couple of hours later. One of those seedy villages was located there—Qualeveres. At one time it was probably the nicest hamlet on the thoroughfare. Now it looked like the forest had taken a big dump and stuck fading signs on the fetid and crumbling piles to identify them. I grabbed my belongings, hopped out of the carriage, thanked the driver, and continued on my way. I pulled my hood up and tightened my belt over the coat instead of hiding it beneath so that I could easily access my dagger and hunting knife. A light drizzle had begun falling; it was late afternoon and I needed to make camp somewhere soon so that I didn’t get soaked.
Here was the problem. To avoid that damn troll bridge—to walk all the way to Lageb—would add more than half a week to my journey.
The drizzle had become more insistent, bordering on rain. I found a decent triangle of felled trees, ones many others had used for shelter judging by the fire pits and trash everywhere, and got set up. If needed, I could stay here another couple of days. Qualeveres was two hours behind me. I could get food there and get out before, hopefully, anybody began plotting against me.
I had stocked up on some good, fresh beef jerky back at the inn, a couple of jars of peaches, and lighter-starter for a campfire, which I built in a previously dug pit. From under the overhang of my tent I watched the night descend quietly upon the forest. Soon I could see only the fire, could hear only raindrops as they fell from the surrounding trees to the leaf- and needle-covered ground. It was how I managed finally to nod off.
The drizzle passed sometime in the night. I woke to bright sunshine and a cool, dry breeze. I cleaned up, packed up, and continued the walk home. With a little luck I could make it to the troll bridge before tomorrow’s sunset.
To hell with it, I thought. I got on myself: I’d built that bridge up to be this awful thing, when it probably was no more or less dangerous than any other bridge out in the boonies. I lived in the boonies, and I never had problems!
Okay, yes, there had been trolls there before, and yes, they had killed a lot of Munchkins, and yes, there had been robberies and muggings there too, and yes, men had died, and yes, some of them had been eaten. Yes. That was all true.
But that was true of many bridges in this realm. You hide in the shadows, your scumsucking, thieving troll self, and you send men or others of your kind to hide on the other side of the bridge in their own scumsucking shadows. When the mark gets to the middle, you cut him or her off on both sides, then have your fun. It was Basic Highway Banditry 101, and hardly centered on my bridge. I’d crossed probably three dozen bridges on my way to see Dr. Dunk; and the carriage back crossed at least that many. In every case, we were never molested or threatened.
As for trolls, they were bloody everywhere, not just waiting on the undersides of bridges. Hell, setting up my camp last night was a concerted exercise in preparing for possible trolls!
Ogres were simply larger trolls, in my estimation. Ogres had a sense of loyalty and territorial pride, which made them inarguably more dangerous, since they had banded together on three occasions and ran total roughshod over Misthaven. Trolls didn’t seem capable of organizing themselves into an army.
There were no ogres in this realm, thank God. Trolls were bad enough.
I spied the Emerald City around midday.
I flipped it off multiple times while it was in view. There it was to the north, a good three days’ journey away, the spires skying high, high into the sky, shrouded with distance and haze. I was at the intersection of the very road that would take me to the troll bridge, one fairly high in elevation at this point, else the Emerald City wouldn’t have been visible at all.
I flipped it off one more time and continued walking. The road descended into heavy forest and the city disappeared.
The Emerald City had during my life become the exclusive home to the wealthy, privileged, and politically connected. Just getting past the gates was an ordeal. You didn’t just need a passport to get in, but also proof of sufficient income.
Last year the Wizard ordered a ban on all Munchkins, claiming they were all terrorists.
What a peckerwood.
I got to the dreaded bridge as the sun dropped beneath the forest line of the next day. I was right on time. My feet and back ached. I’d been walking since before dawn and had probably covered twenty miles. I was exhausted and home was just another three and a half miles away. I’d be able to make it in an hour if I really pushed it. It would be dusk, but not night.
Those were my excuses for why I didn’t stop and look around first. Instead, doggedly and foolishly, I walked on it and kept going, mentally jumping on my own back again for believing that it was any more dangerous than any other.
I looked up at the halfway point.
Three huge, mangy, hairy trolls were waiting on the other side.
I wheeled about.
A huge gray fist smashed down on my head, and I blacked out.