It was to be his first journey through the forest.
Gram watched excitedly as his grandfather hitched the wagon to the old family work horse. He rubbed his eyes and yawned, the morning sun peaking its rays over the horizon in the distance.
He turned and looked at the forest. Daylight would soon paint the city with its brilliance, but Gram wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy it, for the forest he and his grandfather were about to enter blocked all but faint streaks of light through the dense canopy overhead.
He had heard about the path many times, of course, though he had never traveled it. The city fathers had first entered the dark forest nine generations ago in search of a safe trade route to Palendra. His grandfather had told him many a story passed down by the poets and bards about how the fathers slowly worked through the thick wood, seeking the quickest, safest route through. Over seven expeditions, wrought with many mistakes and causalities, the fathers had found the best way.
Gram turned back to watch as his grandfather packed supplies into the compartment along one side of the wagon. Peeking out from among the supplies was the guidebook. Grandfather studied that worn volume regularly, especially over the last week. Then Gram saw his bow. Grandfather noticed Gram’s annoyed look.
“It is for this trip I’ve made you practice so much,” Grandfather said quietly as he closed the compartment. Gram looked away.
The old man and his grandson arranged themselves on the bench at the front of the wagon. Grandfather took one final glance back and then lightly slapped the horse with his reigns.
“Come on, now,” he encouraged. The seasoned horse had made this journey many times. This may yet be his last.
The travelers rocked along the wide open plain that marked the distance between the outskirts of their village and the menacing forest. Gram could see the opening in the impenetrable wall of trees where the path began. The rising sun had now brightened the early morning. His feeling of excited anticipation gradually shifted to anxiety as the massive trees at the edge of the wood loomed nearer.
Gram turned around to take one last look at the city. He thought he could just make out the shape of his mother emerging from the door of their small house at the edge of town, no doubt collecting eggs to prepare breakfast for his sisters. Gram’s stomach grumbled.
Then at once, they were in complete blackness. Or so it seemed. A few seconds later, Gram’s eyes adjusted to the lack of sunlight, and his vision filled with the gray shapes of trees and the path ahead. Silence filled the forest; not much lived here, and what did wasn’t anything you’d want to hear coming your way.
The path wasn’t very wide—only enough space for two wagons about the size of Grandfather’s to barely pass one another. On either side of the path lined tall trees like threatening soldiers daring intruders to pass. The path ran fairly straight for a while, but it wasn’t long before it began to turn.
As they rounded the first bend, Gram noticed a faded sign nailed into the tree ahead.
Grandfather squinted as they passed the sign and slowed the wagon just enough. Puzzlement, then recognition gradually registered on the lined face.
“Ah,” he mused. “Must be one of the old markers.”
“Ay. The fathers placed them along the way to help travelers know which direction to go.”
“But couldn’t they just follow that path like we are?” Gram questioned, bewilderment in his eyes.
Grandfather chuckled. “Why, the fathers didn’t make this path; they simply marked the way. Travelers in the first few generations had to pay close attention to the markers lest they stray. Many there are who have become lost or even died because they failed to pay close attention to the markers.” Gram and his grandfather exchanged sad glances.
Grandfather pointed to their right.
“Look. See, there.”
Gram noticed a large patch of light brown ground, just off the path, where nothing grew.
“There. That’s an example. Quicksand, I believe. Had an early traveler lost the markers, he could have ended up there.” He continued. “Those travelers had to stay alert during the entire journey, but we don’t have to worry as much anymore. Over time, those regular trips along this same route began to form a much more visible path to the degree that now, years later, we hardly pay attention; many a traveler dozes peacefully as his horse casually follows the heavily trod road. Here now is a well-worn path cut through the wood upon which travelers mindlessly pass from one city to the other.” He glanced down at his grandson with a gleam in his eye. “All of the wisdom and care of the fathers is worn into this path.”
Most of their journey was much the same: gray trees, uneven path, silence. The journey through the woods was not very exciting. But it was safe.
Grandfather filled the time with stories. Stories of the founding of their city. Stories of the fathers. Stories of the first time they broke through the other side of the forest and visited Palendra.
Gram had heard them all before.
After several hours, Gram’s eyes began to droop. Just as he began to nod off, the wagon jolted to a stop.
“Brush,” mumbled Grandfather.
Gram watched as his grandfather slowly descended from his perch and walked in front of the horse. Gram jumped down as well. As he walked around the front of the horse to join his grandfather, Gram saw why they had stopped. A large, rotted tree had fallen across the path, blocking the way.
“Can’t we just go around it?” he asked.
“Not wise,” Grandfather replied. “We don’t know what’s on either side, and it would take far too long to figure out a safe way, if there even is one. Why make the effort to forge a new path when we have this one?” He began to head back to the wagon. Gram followed behind.
“Besides,” Grandfather called over his shoulder, “if we don’t take care of this, we’ll just run into it again, or another traveler will.” They reached the back of the wagon, and grandfather pulled down the back gate. He turned and put his wide hand on Gram’s shoulder. “As travelers on the path, we have a responsibility to keep it clear and free from danger. It’s a stewardship; if we don’t care for the path, who will?”
Grandfather climbed up into the wagon and opened the storage compartment. He rummaged through the supplies, extracting a few items: a rope, an ax, two pairs of thick leather gloves.
They each donned the gloves. Grandfather handed Gram the rope and carried the ax himself. They made their way to the rotted tree. Grandfather began to chop off limbs of the tree; thankfully, the decayed nature of the wood made the task manageable for the old man. Once he had successfully separated the first branch, Grandfather instructed Gram to tie the rope around it and haul it off the path.
“Don’t go too far into the wood,” Grandfather warned. “Just leave the branches to the side.”
Piece by piece, Grandfather cut away parts of the dead tree. Piece by piece, Gram dragged them to the edge of the path. Soon, they were finished.
They returned the supplies to the compartment, and just before closing it again, Grandfather removed a small sack that contained their lunch. They ate as they resumed their journey.
After a while, they came to a fork in the path.
Which way do we go? wondered Gram. But he didn’t have to wonder long.
The family horse took the right path with nary a tug on the reigns; he had made the trek so many times before, he needed no direction from Grandfather.
As they passed the fork, Gram peered down the leftward path. It was only then he noticed that the trail fell away a short distance ahead, nothing but a dark abyss beyond.
Grandfather glanced down. “One of the early deviations.”
Gram looked puzzled.
Grandfather continued. “The original path left by the fathers went in that direction, but it was a mistake. Not too long after, the ground there gave way, and the travelers had to make a correction.”
“How did they know how to correct it?”
“It took many years and more work, similar to the work done by the fathers themselves. But they had the example of the fathers to follow, and the guidebook, and they simply applied similar skills to find the right way.”
Gram noticed several more corrections before their journey’s end.
They sat in silence for a while as the wagon rumbled along the path. Gram wondered how many times his grandfather had made this journey. Many times, he knew, although he hadn’t taken the journey in a while, not since . . .
“The chasm,” Grandfather murmured. He nodded his nose forward. “Up ahead.”
Gram looked down the path. The tree line on either side of the path appeared to end, letting just a little more light through the thick canopy. But where the trees ended, the ground fell away. So did the path. Soon Gram saw why; a deep crevasse lay before them.
“Runs the whole length of the forest,” Grandfather commented, sensing Gram’s thoughts. “The only way across is to use Foster’s bridge.”
Just then, it came into view. An old bridge stretched over the gaping gorge, from one bank to the other.
“That must have taken forever to build,” Gram observed.
“It did, indeed,” Grandfather nodded. “Many years and dozens of skilled laborers. It was the only way through, though. The fathers had no choice. Few things worth doing are ever easy.”
Grandfather sighed. “He was the architect. A master engineer whom the fathers enlisted to design the bridge. Gave his life to build this.” He paused as they neared it, slowing the horse to a stop. “Come on,” he said. “We’ll walk the horse and wagon across.
They both descended from the bench and strode to either side of the horse. Each took hold of the bridle and began to lead the horse onto the bridge. The old wood creaked under the weight of the heavy wagon.
Without warning, they heard a sharp snap behind them, and the bridge shifted, almost knocking them off their feet. The wagon began to slowly reverse its course.
“Quickly,” Grandfather grunted. Gram saw the old man jerk forward, grasping tightly on the horse’s bridle, urging the beast forward. Gram looked back and saw why. Two of the bridge planks, just under the back wheels of the wagon, had broken, causing the wagon to slip backward. If they didn’t get the wagon forward briskly enough, it would roll back all the way, pulling the horse down with it, and potentially demolishing the entire bridge.
But Grandfather had acted quickly. The horse pulled with all its strength, wrenching the wagon forward and to safety. Within seconds, they were to the other side of the chasm.
Grandfather wiped the perspiration from his bow, patted the horse’s neck, and strode quietly to the back of the wagon. He stood for a moment in silence, peering down into the empty blackness below. Then he turned, pulled down the gate at the back of the wagon, climbed up, and once again opened the storage compartment. He drew from within two long planks of wood, a hammer, and some nails.
“Stay here and watch the wagon,” he puffed, still a bit out of breath.
Gram watched as his grandfather hobbled back down the bridge to the place where the timber had given way. He listened as Grandfather placed the new wood down upon the crossbeams and hammered them into place, the sharp sounds echoing noisily down into the abyss below.
After Grandfather returned, replaced the hammer and spare nails back into the compartment, and closed the wagon gate, the two climbed back into their seats, and the freshly rested horse resumed towing them down the way.
“Even a well-built bridge needs to be repaired now and again,” Grandfather noted. “Nothing lasts forever.”
Gram’s stomach groaned with hunger not too longer after the bridge incident. He frowned. Grandfather had told him they wouldn’t eat any dinner until they arrived at their destination.
Surely there’s a quicker way through, Gram thought. Maybe there are newer ideas or techniques that can find a better route.
Maybe he was right.
Just then Grandfather pulled gently on the reigns, and the wagon slowed to a stop as the path made a sharp turn to the left. He looked pale, his eyes fixed on the bend in the road. Gram thought he saw a small tear roll down his cheek. Then he knew where they were.
“Is this where it happened?” Gram whispered, following his grandfather’s gaze.
Grandfather didn’t stir for many moments, then nodded grimly and looked down at his feet.
Gram peered ahead where the path took its turn and barely made out what appeared to be another path, this one clearly forged later than the one on which they traveled. It appeared clear and straight, but Gram could see the old faded marker that pointed left. This new path broke from the old road.
Grandfather sighed. “This is where he parted from the way. He took his own path. He thought it would be better, straighter, quicker. He didn’t trust the fathers.”
“Why couldn’t he have just stayed on the path?” Gram’s voice cracked, the salt of tears stinging his eyes. He now knew the thoughts he’d had moments earlier were foolish, just as foolish as his father’s had been.
“It is a common impulse among young men, a temptation to reject what is handed down to them.” Grandfather shifted in his seat. “Your father thought it would be quicker. He didn’t understand why the path turned, why it didn’t just continue straight. He thought he had an easier way. Easier, perhaps—but wrong.”
Grandfather slapped with the reigns, and they resumed again.
“You’ll have to fight those urges, too,” Grandfather murmured. “We all do.”
Gram nodded slowly, wiping his moist cheeks.
After a while of monotonous travel, Grandfather’s eyes brightened. “There,” he nodded ahead, color returning to his face. “We’re almost through.”
For several minutes Gram saw nothing, but then the light ahead began to brighten ever so slightly. Soon he recognized that the path led out of the forest into a clearing a distance ahead.
Suddenly, Grandfather’s head jerked quickly to the right. He pulled sharply on the reigns and sat motionless, making no sound but deliberate, raspy breaths.
A moment later, Gram heard it, too. A low, rumbling sound. Then a distinct snarl.
“Wolves!” Grandfather gasped with a hoarse whisper, slapping the reigns against the horse’s backside. The horse started into a trot, then a slow gallop. The old fellow strained at the weight of the wagon.
Out of the corner of his eye, Gram saw a flash of white. He turned his head to see two large wolves break from the forest and on to the path behind them. He looked to the other side. Three more.
“Quick,” Grandfather panted. “The compartment.”
Gram froze, then remembered. As the wagon jerked along, picking up speed, just keeping ahead of the raving dogs, Gram turned and gingerly climbed back into the wagon. Just as he reached the compartment, the wagon hit a bump, sending Gram flying against the side railing. His hat flew over the edge. Gram reached out desperately to catch it, pulling his hand back just in time as the hot snap of a wolf’s teeth snatched the cap out of the air, shredding it to pieces with a whip of his head.
Gram steadied himself and pulled open the top of the compartment. He reached in and extracted the bow and six arrows.
“Quickly,” shouted Grandfather. Gram turned and saw two ferocious wolves nipping at the horse’s hooves.
Gram fitted an arrow to the string and took aim at the wolf on the horse’s right. He let the arrow fly.
“Careful!” Grandfather wheezed. “Remember your training!”
Gram grabbed another arrow, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and pulled back. He opened his eyes, focusing on the wolf again. With a wiz and a yelp, the wolf was down. Another. Then another. In rapid succession Gram skillfully disposed of their pursuers.
Just then the horse and wagon burst into the sunlight.
Grandfather pulled on the reigns, and they slowed to a stop. He pulled a cloth from his pocket and wiped his brow, panting furiously. Then he took to the ground and came near to the old work horse. He pulled a few oats from his pouch and raised them in his open palm to the horse’s mouth.
“Well done, my old friend,” he sighed as he stroked the horse’s mane.
Gram had collapsed against the side of the wagon, breathing heavily, his heart pounding in his chest.
Grandfather returned to his seat at the head of the wagon and turned to his grandson.
“Now you see why the fathers gave us the guidebook.”
“Now you see what all that practice was for.”
Gram smiled gently.
Grandfather reached out his arm. “Come on; just over that hill.”
Gram took his Grandfather’s hand and climbed to sit next to him. As they started again, Gram turned to look back at the forest. He thought he saw two glowing eyes peering out from the foreboding gloom. He wasn’t looking forward to the return trip.
The wagon rocked, and Gram turned back forward. As they crested the hill, he stared in wonder at the three tall towers of Palendra gleaming in the glow of sunset.