Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chapter Thirty-Two

A child’s sobs echo through the empty streets.

He’s been following this intriguing sound for some time now, padding closer and closer.

His stomach screams at him to run and leap and kill and feast - it's been so long since he’s eaten - but this is an unfamiliar land, a dangerous land, and so he remains cautious.

Better to risk losing the meal, he decides, than to die with his hunger sated. After all, the dead cannot be far away, hunting in their own pathetic way.

Such a hateful land, the Lion thinks to himself, and his face darkens. The stone ground chafes his paws. There are no tall grasses to stalk through, invisible and unheard. And there are so few trees to offer shade and protection. Even worse, there is no river where his prey might gather to drink. Hateful.

But a child, a helpless child, still crying, still alive... The Lion’s pulse quickens as he turns a final corner, the first predator to reach the prize.

And he stops short at the sight of a small, wooden boy, flavorless as a tree, slumped against a Door.

The Lion’s disappointment is short-lived – he’d never seen such an oddity before and his interest is piqued.

After a moment’s observation, he asks, “Why are you crying?” in his deep, silky voice.

The boy looks up, and the Lion is amazed at how the painted eyes move toward his. Most interesting.

“I’m lost,” says the child.

“As are we all,” says the Lion. He steps closer and regards the boy with his yellow gaze.

“But you should keep quiet,” he continues in a voice warm with concern. “There are things in this land that might hurt you.”

“You mean the dead ones?” asks the boy.

“Yes. The dead ones.”

“They don’t bother me,” he says in a hopeless voice. “I’m made of wood. I’m not real.” More tears trickle down his varnished face.

Intrigued, the Lion steps closer. There’s something about the boy’s scent – one never encountered in the Wildlands, the tingling smell of magic – that revolts him, but curiosity compels him forward.

Unbidden, he licks at the child’s cheek. The boy’s chuckle goes unnoticed as the Lion marvels at the taste of salt.

“Oh, I’d say you’re real,” says the Lion. “Very real indeed.” He sits on his lean haunches and regards the boy carefully.

“Where are you from?” he asks, his voice hungrier than before.

The boy points a finger at the Door behind him. There are symbols carved into the wood, meaningless and illegible to the Lion.

“Only I can’t go back,” explains the child. “The Pig bricked it up from the inside.” His painted eyes fill with tears once more. “But he never followed me through. I don’t know why. And now I’m stuck here, alone.”

Though lost in thought, the Lion nods attentively at the boy’s story. How much more useful, he thinks, is this little wooden boy than an entire pack of hyenas. Than all the creatures in the Wildlands, perhaps.

“No,” purrs the Lion, and he gently places a paw on the boy’s shoulder. He smiles a scarred smile. “You’re not alone.”