16. things not to think about
“Best not to think about who might be following you, though; they’re clearly adept at not being found, which means they’ll only be seen when they *want* to be seen.”
Right. Well you won’t think about that then, no way. Things are far too close to being bearable right now to spoil them with paranoia.
“Paranoia is *healthy!*”
You respectfully disagree with the voice in your head. You have had more than your recommended allowance of paranoia already today. Enough is enough. You’re going to wander along by this river and twirl your shiny new sword and-
“Don’t swing that sword about like that unless you have to, you’ll make it dull!”
You sigh deeply, and sheathe your sword. Fine then. You’ll just walk along quietly, not thinking about who might be watching you. Not thinking about that at all… you look around you, trying to admire the scenery and not at all keeping an eye out for any shadowy figures in the undergrowth. Butterflies flail through the air with wings like madly patterned paper napkins. On a nearby tree a millipede the colour of copper coils its way up the trunk, its body as thick as your arm. A ratlike creature with long webbed fingers hops off a rock into the stream, chasing fish through the reeds. As the noon chorus of screaming insects starts to fade to a dull hiss, you’re gratified to find that your shadow is roughly ahead of you. You grudgingly thank the voice that guessed it would be, though the realisation that it’s now definitively the afternoon prompts the thought of night falling before too long. A night alone in this creeping, crawling forest… or not alone…
You are certainly not looking about for figures lurking in the trees. You agreed you wouldn’t think about that. Nope, not a thought spared for the unknown set of eyes that watched you while you slept…
“So how did that song go again? The one Nanoc the Dragon’bone’chewer used to sing in Volumes 34-37 of the Swordventure in Swordland series, before he died of mosquito bite? Ah, yes:
Down in the vale where the dragons snore,
The manticores yawn and the spyders roar
(Poisonous spyders who don’t like yer face!),
The demons do squeal, and flee in wild chase.
For behold! Our hero with rattling sabre
Cuts them all into little pieces like so many parsley leaves,
such is his glorious labour!
Surely that’ll warn anyone and anything that is considering whether to attack you and put you back in a prison cell and bite your head off that you’re not one to be messed with, no sir.”
You try to warble a few lines of the half-remembered song. A bee flies past your ear, startling you, and you stumble forward a few steps, stubbing your toe on a tree root. By the time you’ve regained a semblance of composure, you’ve entirely forgotten the tune, which was always a rather tenuous contrivance on that particular song. You hum falteringly as you walk along, trying to regain it, and picking up your pace in the hope it’ll quicken your mind. Certainly not because you’re scared. Certainly not because you glimpsed something moving across the river just as you stumbled. You refuse to look at it. Perhaps nobody was ever following you. Perhaps it was some trick of the charm. People with undiscovered magic talents always end up activating them while they sleep, just as Nanoc did, accidentally turning the countess of Buxomia into a dragon while he slept, remember, in book thirty-five? Yeah. This bird’s foot charm must have some sort of power of understanding. You sleep-walked through finding the maps and working out the compass-watch thing, then climbed back into your tree, and woke up. Without leaving any footprints. Yeah….
“From what Vengre said about your charm (and I don’t mean your charisma, though according to him you were lacking in that area too,) we can assume it has power over movement and the lack thereof. I’m guessing this is why you find walking barefoot so comfortable right now. If you pay attention to the ground I bet you’ll notice all the grass, flowers, insects and mice are keeping out of the way like commoners making way for their king.”
You look down at your feet, as instructed. Grasshoppers leap from under them, but grasshoppers always do that. You step into some longer grass, to see what happens… and stagger back, as it parts away from you like green curtains. Shakily, you take another step forward, and watch minute prickles and dried leaves roll away from you. You wobble, one foot raised into the air, too stunned to bring it down to earth. You’re not sure how long you stand there. Minutes, maybe…
Something rustles on the other side of the river. A loud, protrusive sound amid the lazy murmurings of insects. Your foot thuds back to earth and you look round, in time to see a rabbit reach the edge of the river, pivot desperately on one foot (hoof?) and race back into the undergrowth. Somewhere not too distant some insect is barking out shrill notes. If a bird was making them you’d say it was an alarm call, but you’ve no idea if insects get alarmed. Maybe it saw a frightening flower. Yeah. Nothing to worry about. You hurry onwards, resolutely not looking at your feet. But this only means you’re more aware of what’s going on around you. The river is properly a river now, wide enough that you couldn’t jump over it, deep enough that you’d have to wade, maybe even swim in places. More rabbits race past, and some of them do try to jump the river, crashing into the water feet away from you and scrambling up the bank, unheeding of your presence. Alarm calls erupt constantly behind and to your left. Out of honey, you tell yourself. That’s all it is. Bugs aren’t frightened by normal things. And rabbits are just mad anyway. And then something new appears on the other side of the river. It does so without fuss or noise, so that by the time you notice it, it could have been there for several minutes, walking calmly along the opposite riverbank, watching you.
If insects and rabbits are alarmed by that, you can understand why.
Once it is sure you’ve seen it, the creature steps into the river, and begins to wade across, keeping its gaze fixed on you.