The commotion from the farm faded into the background, giving way to new and unfamiliar sounds. Hoots could be heard in the distance and the chatter of bugs clicking their pincers seemed closer than they did before. Poysenberry had no clue how far they’d gone, nor how long they’d been walking. But he knew he couldn’t keep going at this pace without a break.
‘Can you see yet?’ said Woodman.
‘Still a little fuzzy,’ said Poysenberry.
‘We should stop for a moment and give you a chance to heal.’
Woodman guided them to a stone bridge that hung over the river. It had its middle section missing. Poysenberry inferred by the look of it that the missing pieces had fallen away long ago. The three plants huddled at the side of the bridge, each of them out of breath.
‘Can we take a rest until morning?’ said Poysenberry. ‘My back leg is numb.’
‘No,’ said Woodman. ‘We’re still too close to the farm.’
‘But we’ve been walking for hours!’
‘No, Woodman is right,’ said Nightshade. ‘Many farm owners have birds they can send out to scout the area for their missing Axies. Trust me, you don’t want to deal with that kind of blackmail on a night like this.’
With a heavy exhale, Poysenberry flopped onto the ground and lay himself upside down.
‘I can’t move,’ he whined.
He heard the other two going to the river and drinking from it. After a minute, Woodman returned with a cupped ruin shard in his mouth and stood over Poysenberry. Without a word, he tipped it upside down and poured the water onto Poysenberry’s face. Poysenberry shot up and spat in the air.
‘Drink up,’ said Woodman. ‘So you can use that rosebud on your forehead.’
‘Okay!’ Poysenberry got himself up and slogged his way to the riverbank. ‘Sheesh. I already told you all my leg is numb.’
Nightshade was still lapping at the water when he came beside her.
‘We won’t stop next until we reach the nearest civilisation,’ called Woodman behind them. ‘We’ll keep walking along the river, as most communities are built beside water sources. But even still, I suggest you two take your fill now because my plans are to keep walking long into the morning.’
It was strange to see this side of Woodman. For all Poysenberry assumed about him, he never once would’ve expected that Woodman would escape the farm, and especially not with such haste. Even after the incident between him and the owner. It was as if Woodman was scared of something.
‘Hurry up and drink.’
Poysenberry nodded and lowered his face to the water. He sipped the cool, refreshing water and started to regain some sensation in his bad leg. After another few sips, a sharp pain rose through bones, causing him to buckle and fall to his side.
‘Shit,’ he said.
Nightshade came to his side. ‘What’s wrong?’
He shook his head.
Poysenberry shook his head once more. ‘Nothing.’ Then with all the strength he could muster, he activated his rosebud and a slight pink glow emanated from the flower. His leg began to tickle, and he almost spurt out a laugh. Then his glow faded and he let out a loud sigh of relief. His leg still felt sore but the sharp pain had subsided.
‘We should move,’ said Woodman, returning to them. ‘I thought I saw something in the air back toward the farm.’
Poysenberry nodded. He lapped up a last drink of water then jogged behind the other two who had already started walking. The group marched along under the light of the full moon along the riverside. The trek seemed endless. The scenery hardly changed from one hour to the next.
At one point, Poysenberry thought he was becoming delirious as he was starting to hear strange noises – faint chirps that sounded nothing like bugs and birds. More like sniggers, if anything. He stopped for a moment, letting the other two carry onward while he rubbed his eyes. After activating his rosebud earlier, his vision had returned to normal. He was very thankful to be able to see clearly again.
The chirping laughter grew louder and almost ended in a howl. Poysenberry glanced over his shoulder and then into the depths of the desert, spotting nothing but a few brambles of fountain grass and long forgotten ruins. A trickle of sweat ran down his face.
Then he heard a splash in the river. Poysenberry saw movement on the opposite shore. Sweat drained from his forehead down past his chin. He remained stiller than a statue while his eyes tried to focus on the creatures.
Nothing took shape in the darkness. Only movements. Black movements on a shaded night.
Then, as if on cue, several bright blue eyes beamed across the way. Poysenberry’s heart stopped. He counted six sets of eyes, all blue, except for the one at the front of the clan. A rich topaz was glaring at him while the other eye was covered by a black eyepatch. Poysenberry started to tip toe aside while those eyes tracked his every movement. He wanted to shout for Nightshade and Woodman but his voice could not get past a giant lump in his throat. Then several malicious grins cracked upon the faces of the dark figures — cheshire grins with blood upon their needle thin teeth. They started to laugh.
‘Why so serious?’ they said.
Poysenberry backed a step.
‘Why so serious?’
Their sniggers echoed in the night like wild jeers around a fallen prey.
‘Why so serious?’
The leader with the eyepatch moved into the water, all the while keeping its eyes fixed on the scared plant. Poysenberry turned to run when he crashed into Woodman.
The laughter rose.
‘Never mind them,’ said Woodman, staring in their direction. ‘They’re not after you this evening.’
Nightshade reached a paw out to help Poysenberry up. He took her paw and got to his feet, turning over his shoulder to take another glance at them.
‘What are they?’
‘Fishers,’ said Woodman. ‘In search of a meal for the night.’
Poysenberry shuddered as he watched those glowing eyes.
He saw them dive into the river and then emerge with thrashing creatures in their mouths. The clan jeered at the successful catch. They all gathered round and began to devour the critter at once.
He turned, taken aback that Woodman called him by his real name.
‘We might be close to civilisation,’ he said. ‘No need to stop when we’ve come this far.’
Poysenberry nodded and tagged along with his group, walking away from the Axies on the other side of the river who were laughing and howling at him. Nightshade slowed down her pace to walk beside him. She was quiet, simply moving one paw after the other, allowing him space to dream.
Having her nearby comforted him. It made him feel brave enough to face these conflicting fronts of emotion within himself.
‘I used to walk all the time,’ she said. ‘Almost every day of my life.’
Poysenberry glanced at her.
‘Back when I had a trainer,’ she said. ‘And two other great Axies at my side.’
‘You were a traveller then?’
‘In a way.’
‘That’s incredible. I can’t believe you were actually out in the world fighting battles and wandering from town to town. How did you even end up in a dinky old farm like ours?’
Nightshade hummed to herself, then kicked a small pebble in front of her into the river.
The stars were flickering red and blue in the blackened skies. They seemed to shine brighter the further away they got from the farm. Poysenberry stared at them, trying to count as many as he could.
‘I often wondered what it would be like to be a travelling Axie.’
Nightshade kept staring ahead into the distance.
‘What ever happened,’ he said. ‘I mean to you and your trainer?’
‘He left us,’ she said, ‘all alone in the forest one day.’
She shrugged. ‘That’s life,’ she said. ‘And we learned to cope.’
Poysenberry agreed, even though he wasn’t entirely sure what that coping entailed.
‘You can tell if an Axie has seen the world. Take him up there, for example,’ she said, nodding her chin towards Woodman. ‘I know he had a trainer at one point too. I’m certain he’s fought his fair share of matches and probably earned a good deal in the process. But unlike me, I don’t think he was abandoned.’
Poysenberry looked up at Woodman, who seemed deaf to their chatter. It was hard to see the Plant as anything other than a salty old crank. But he tried to envision the Axie as a fine warrior in his youth, out on the lands taking on any battle or challenge that comes his way.
‘Axies like him need respect to thrive,’ she said. ‘Or else what do they have? Memories from a better time?’
A strong gust blew through the night, casting sand into the air and upon their faces. Woodman tilted his back to the dust and kept on marching. Poysenberry mirrored his actions, finding it helpful to buffer the sand.
As the winds died down, Nightshade touched his side, and gave him a smile. Her hand was warm on his skin.Then she pulled ahead of him, falling in line behind their leader.
His body remained warm from her touch. Something about her made him want to be brave. To be a strong Axie that she could always rely on.
The winds blew a small twister in the desert for several seconds before it vanished. Woodman tilted his back against the winds and Poysenberry found himself copying the old plant. They kept pushing through the winds and gaining ground in the desert.
And along the way, Poysenberry found himself studying Woodman, adopting a few tricks from him here and there.
To be continued…