The caravan continued its journey through the woods. Wendell tried to think clearly, but the farther they went along, he felt more and more miserable until he couldn’t stand it.
“I don’t understand,” Wendell blurted out. He looked over at the storyteller.
“What don’t you understand?”
“All of it. Anything. Everything you’ve said. Everything that’s going on. The stories, the riddle, the songs... what is it all talking about?”
Garim looked at him soberly. “What? You seemed to understand everything well, but now you don’t understand.”
“You know what I mean,” Wendell said wearily.
The storyteller looked down a bit, sadly.
“I mean, I wish someone would just tell me what I’m supposed to do. I wish someone would just be straightforward, be clear and simple.”
“Maybe we are being clear and simple...” Garim said sardonically.
This answer was even less satisfying than any of the others. Thoughts went through his mind, heedless of his attempts to ignore them. “I am the simplest of all things, so that even a child can find me.” What a useless riddle!! “I always succeed in whatever I do. I am not fire, but no flood can put me out...” Wendell stopped in his thoughts. It always succeeds. That would be a useful thing to have!! Perhaps it was a magic dust that was invisible. But any child could find it anywhere... how?? There was nothing clear and simple about any of it!!
All he knew was that he must find the answer. That’s all. But the answer was in the riddle, and the riddle was the answer, and... oh, who cares?
But he couldn’t not care! There must be something he could do... unless he could find it, and then he could do anything!!
He laughed sadly at the ridiculousness of the thought. He slumped wearily in the saddle. He would do anything to know. Anything. Okay. Maybe the riddle actually is clear and simple. Yeah!! What am I saying?? But I have to try!!
He licked his lips and shivered. “Maybe we are being clear and simple...” the storyteller’s words rang in his head. Now what? There was no way for him to understand.
“I am not fire, but no flood can put me out.” He imagined it, a fire that no flood could put out. He imagined a fire burning, and then a bucket of water falling on it. The fire went out. Another fire, this time hotter... it ate the water mercilessly. Now he sent a huge storm wave against it. The fire in his mind blazed hotter and brighter, until it became his own heart’s hopeful despair.
“I understand!!” He blurted out loudly. Hangs looked at him strangely, then turned back around. Garim looked over at him suddenly, surprised. Then he smiled and went back to looking at the road.
Wendell remembered... the flowers!! A burst of hopefulness went through him, at the memory of their lively red color.
“We have to go back!! Stop!!”
He pulled up on his reins, and his horse whinnied in protest. All the horses stopped.
“Back that way!!”
“What? What is it?” Hangs asked, reeling his horse around. The other soldiers gathered their horses near.
“Just follow me, okay...” Wendell said hesitantly.
“Wait, what is it?” Hangs spouted.
“I... there were some flowers. Red flowers. I wanted to pick some.”
Hangs gave him an impossible look.
“Well, you’re the leader here,” he said, shrugging carelessly.
Quickly Hangs turned his horse about and Wendell’s horse followed. They retraced their journey quickly, and Wendell looked nervously to see if he could find them again. The other soldiers looked too, looking a bit sheepish. But the patch had been rather far away, and obscured by trees. There was so much forest to see, and little bits that came and went from view. But at least now he had something to look for, to find, anything!!
“There!!” he yelled, pointing. Hangs turned in his saddle and leaned to look, then grimly led the soldiers onward, handling the reins expertly. They came to the patch, which was rather small, and Wendell dismounted quickly, almost falling backwards into the grass. Fortunately, he knew more about falling than riding.
“I thought those only grew in the royal gardens. You’ve got some eyes. Now, go pick your... flowers... and let’s get back to the path before evening. The wolves will be out.”
Wendell got down and picked one. They looked so alive, he was afraid to even step on them, but he wanted to keep at least one. He looked around. There was a small clearing farther into the woods, with yellow sunlight brightening it, and more trees on every side. It looked so cheerful, it made him want to smile, even though he was so sad inside.
Without thinking, he got up and walked towards the clearing, and heard the others following behind. He stepped out into the open from the shade, and the sun felt so bright after being in the woods all day, and for a moment his dark mood began to melt.
But he couldn’t help it, even though nothing could make him happy before, but the sunlight’s warmth seemed to seep even into his bones. What a strange thing, he thought. I bet this place could make anyone happy, no matter how sad!! Just like... Karen’s smile!! She was thinking of someplace like this, I suppose. He just stood in the sunlight and didn’t know what to do next. One of the soldiers was talking, but it was far away...
No, it wasn’t a soldier. He listened more carefully, and it was the sound of running water, a babbling brook. Where was it coming from? He headed off through the wild forest plants towards the noise, stopping to listen often. The soldiers and Hangs and the storyteller came behind him, watching him silently. As he came closer, it grew louder and clearer, but never turned into a roar.
There was a clump of bushes ahead... he shoved the branches aside, holding them back with each hand and slowly stepping through. He came through and there was a bustling brook running down a jumbled streambed right on the other side. It sounded like brooks always do, as if they were trying to say something but couldn’t make up their mind what to say first, so it came out as nonsense.
But he liked to hear it anyways. Now what, he thought. Is this another... something like the flowers and the sunshine?
The brook continued babbling, but he didn’t know whether to go back and look for something else. Maybe the babbling would make sense. He listened, but it just sounded like water. He stood there and watched, and heard the soldiers getting restless on the bank. Oh, I have an idea!
He looked for Hangs.
“How does... how did Karen’s voice sound?” Wendell asked, trying to smile a little, as if it was a casual question.
Hangs hid his distaste for the question beneath a dutiful expression. One of the soldiers spoke up, though, looking off into the forest.
“I never heard her talk very much, to be truthful. Except of course when she was out in the gardens, and then I could hear her sometimes, far away, talking to the trees or something. Her voice was a lot like the gardens, I guess, kind of wild and quiet at the same time, meandering a bit, but sometimes it was like... she wasn’t really talking, she was just being silent out loud. I don’t know. Mostly she could be pretty quiet. Then again if she got angry you could hear her across half the castle.”
Wendell felt a bit of a tear coming to his eye at the man’s simple, elegant words. He listened to the brook intently now, which was noisy, but still didn’t disturb the quietness of the forest.