4. Selling the King’s Berries

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Chapter IV
Selling the King’s Berries

 

Chapter IV

 

I soon realized that there was no need not to rush after Necrom and his donkey.  Walking at a normal rate, I could have easily caught and passed the pair.  As I moved alongside the wagon, neither beast nor man was aware of my presence.  Both had retired for the evening, as they made their way to their unknown destination.


Unsure just how to approach Necrom in this drowsy state, I hesitated, “If I speak to loudly, I may startle them both and cause his cargo to spill,” I thought.  “That would make him mad. And he wouldn’t tell me, anything.”

So I walked patiently beside them for sometime, hoping Necrom would awaken to check his progress. But when you’re tired, watching someone else sleep is near impossible.  Soon, my eyelids grew heavy.  My speed slowed with each step.  My head bobbing; I teetered between half-sleep and half-awake.  As the wagon finally overtook me, my sleepy eyes locked on the rear wagon gate.  It was down.  The hard flat surface looked comfortable.  I decided it was time to make it my bed for the night.  Hopping aboard, I never realized my head touching the wood.

 ———————-

 My nose was the first to awaken the following morning.  The smell of Necrom’s cooking breakfast roused my waiting stomach.  Slowly, I sat up – rubbing my eyes.  The hard rear door had not been kind to my poor back.  Then the squeak of the wagon from my careful, but clumsy movement brought attention to my presence.

From the front of the wagon, I heard him call, “Is that a stowaway back there moving round?”

Oh, no! He knew I was at the back of his wagon.  I did not dare speak.

“You might as well get down and fill your belly,” he summoned.  “Then you can tell me what you’re doing in my wagon.”

Slowly, I lowered myself from the wagon’s rear gate, and cautiously peered around the corner.  Necrom sat on a small boulder, stirring the campfire with a stick.  Without looking up; he inquired, “You’re one of Solo’s, aren’t you?”

 I still said nothing, but sensed I had nothing to fear from this man.  Bravely, I stepped around the wagon and took a seat across from him.  He reached down beside the rock into an old wooden box, scratching through its contents.  Pulling out a crusty blue metal bowl, he lifted the lid on the large kettle resting above the fire.  He spooned out a generous portion of gray mush.  He replaced the lid and handed the bowl over the fire to me.  Accepting the bowl, we sat and stared at one another.

“Not hungry,” he inquired?

Sharply; I snapped, “You didn’t give me a spoon.” It was rude, but I wasn’t letting my guard down in front this man – just yet.

“Huh!  Oh, yeah! A spoon,” he grunted as he dug once again through the wooden box.  Retrieving a fork; he mumbled, “Here!  This’ll have to do.”

I took the fork, not concerned if it was a spoon, fork, knife, or anything else.  Hunger was taking over my actions.  Though the gray much had seemed so unappealing, at first.

“Solo won’t be happy when he finds you’ve run off, you know,” Necrom mused.

I continued eating undisturbed.

“I know he keeps a pretty tight reign on you little pickers.  But I guess I would too, if I had a set up like his.  Does he ever pay you kids, anything?”

This inquisitive old man was starting to irritate me now.  But I decided to withhold comment, at least until my mush was gone.

“That alright, I know he don’t give you tykes anything, anyway.  Can’t say I blame you for running off.”

That was enough.  I was not going to sit here and be insulted by this drifter, any longer.

“I’m not running away from Solo’s camp,” I proudly defended.  “I’m looking for my friend, Andy.  And that’s the only reason I’m here with you now.” Pausing; I regained my composure.  Then boldly, I challenged him with the question which had been burning in my gut since last night, “And I thought you may have seen him in your travels?  Have you?”

“Ah, I see,” he said pondered.

“It’s true!” I stated defensively.  “Andy and I were picking berries in the forest when a traveler came upon us.  He tried to get us to come to him. Then he threw magic feathers at us.  I have . . .”

“Hold on there,” he broke in.  “Tell you what!  Help me clean up and load the wagon while you tell me your story then I’ll tell you if I’ve seen him – or not.”

Without much thought, I gave an affirmative nod, and agreed to help Necrom break camp.  While continuing my story of Andy’s disappearance, we picked up the items spread about the camp.  Necrom would give the occasional grunt, but said nothing.  He reserved comment until the work was finished.

Then as he climbed up the wagon step; Necrom called back to me, “Hop aboard.  I’ve got to get these berries out of the sun.”

“But I’ve got to look for Andy,” I protested.  “You said you’d tell me if you’d seen him.”

“Well, it’s like this, kid,” he shouted as the wagon jerked into motion.  “If you want to hear what I’ve got to say, you’d better jump on the wagon.  Cause I’m getting these berries out of the sun.”

With no other choice, I ran to the wagon, jumping up alongside Necrom.

We sat in silence for sometime.  The wagon seemed to hit every rut and hole on the trail.  And with each jolt, Necrom would crash against me – pinning me between his huge body and the tiny side rail of the tiny driver’s seat.  All the while, Necrom still had made no mention of Andy. Precious time was slipping by.  Stewing in the silence, I determined that I would ask him what he knew one last time.  Then the wagon ran against a very deep rut, forcing the vehicle to lean sharply to the left side.   This time, I crashed against Necrom as he nearly tipped out of the wagon. With the huge jolt, a heavy brown pouch slid forward for under the seat, banging the front kick board of the wagon.  Looking down at the bag between my feet, I suspected it as the same one which Necrom had pulled from under the seat, last night.

Noticing his pouch had shifted into view; Necrom warned with emphasis on the latter, “It’d be wise to keep your eyes and your hands away from that pouch.”

By his expression and manner, I figured the pouch must be of considerable value.

“What could be of that importance to a man in Necrom’s position?” I wondered.

Then I exclaimed, “Does it contain messages from the King?”

“What!” he countered?

“I’m sorry,” apologizing for my blunder.  “It wasn’t proper for me to query your activities in the King’s business.”

 “And just what business do you think I’d be doing with your king?” Necrom mused.

“You’re a collector of the King’s fruit,” I informed him.  “Just like Deac . . .”

Before I could finish, Necrom burst into tremendous laughter.

“You!  You think!”  Necrom was unable to finish his sentence.

His huge belly danced as the jovial laughter rolled out. Tears formed in his eyes as he struggled to catch his breath.  I was too confused by his action to be angry, but I knew I didn’t like his finding such humor in what I had said.

Struggling to regain his composure, Necrom attempted to speak once again.

Rubbing his chin; Necrom began, “You’re comparing me to Solo’s oaf, Dea . . . Deac . . .” His body starting to heave as he fought to control the laughter boiling within.

Insulted by this attack on a servant of the King; I defended one of my own camp, “This is a Collector of the King’s fruit whom you speak unfavorably of.  A servant dedicated in his service to the King’s promise.  A promise to reclaim his forest and all that is his.  Even I, as a child, realize the danger of your words and demand you stop this wagon now so I may separate myself from your evil words.”

“Go ahead you little fool. Jump!  Keep on looking for your friend.  But I’ll tell you something right now; you’re not going to find him around here.  I guarantee you that he’s long gone from this place with no plans of ever coming back.  He’s chasing a new fable now.”

I sat frozen at the edge of the wagon seat; Necrom’s words eating at the foundation of my belief.  Andy never coming back.  Forsaking the King with his return – so close.

Glancing at the bag at my feet; Necrom continued with his hammer of destruction, “That bag at your feet.  You were curious about its contents.  Weren’t you?”

Looking at the bag, I didn’t speak.  I was too frightened by the thoughts running through my mind.

“You want to see the message Solo collected for the people of your camp last night.  Go ahead!  Take a look!  It’s the same one he takes every night in exchange for your berries.”

Slowly, I reach down to the floor of the wagon, lifting the heavy bag to my lap.  Loosening the draw string, I closed my eyes as I took a deep breath before daring to look at the secret contents.

Silently; I whispered a prayer, “Please reveal your message held within from our King.  Oh, please; have a message to counter this attack on your people.”

With another deep breath, I slid my hand down deep into the mouth of the pouch, praying the feel of parchment would welcome my touch.  Instead, my hand was repelled from the bag by the sudden chill of a hard, cold substance.  Necrom watched as I rubbed my hand on my leg as though this action would remove the evil my hand had just encountered.  Again I slowly reached into the bag and scooped a small portion of the cold material into my hand.  The sensation, much like the feel of the tiny stones lying in the bed of a brook, came to mind.  The cold softness as when you raked your hand across the stones beneath the running water.  Slowly, I rolled one of the tiny objects between my thumb and index finger.  Uneven in shape, the small object was smooth in texture.  It failed to give under the pressure of my squeeze, but was even softer than the stones of the brook.  As I fondled the tiny, cold pellet, I felt the warmth of my body drawn through my fingers toward the object.  Carefully, I withdrew my hand from the darkness of the bag.  A ray from the morning sun caught the brilliant glimmer of the tiny gold nugget.

Reaching deep down into the bag with intent, I withdrew a mammoth handful of the gold and silver nuggets.  Suddenly, Necrom’s last statement struck a nerve – “in exchange for your berries.”

“Why would Solo want to sell our berries?” I yearned to cry

out.  “Andy and I had always thought Solo and Deacon were storing the fruit in a cave, or somewhere safe, when they had headed off into the forest, each night.  Now to find that they had been – had been selling the berries.  The thought was unthinkable! There must be a reason.  There must!”

“You okay there, kid;” Necrom asked. The concerned look stood out as it spread across his face.

 “I just don’t know why Solo would be selling to the King,” I responded in a puzzled tone.  “I always thought the berries were our gift to the King.”

“He’s not selling berries to any king; he’s selling ’em to me.  I make grog out of ’em and sell it by the jug.  Pretty good grog at that.”

I was devastated.  Solo had deceived us.  We had worked and worked, preparing with everything we had to give for the King’s return. And now we had nothing to give.  Nothing at all to offer before our King, upon His arrival.

“Sir!  You must turn around and return these berries to the people of my camp.  Our King will arrive any moment and we must have fruit for his battle.”

“Kid!  Wake up;” Necrom cut in.  “Don’t you understand?  There is no king.  There is no battle of the forest.  There is no hidden fruit.  There’s a hundred Solo’s out there in the forest.  Each one has his little band of followers laboring away while the so called ‘elders’ sit around keeping everything under control.  You’ve been suckered, kid.  That’s all there is to it.”

I sat silent as the wagon bounced along.  “What is there to live for,” I wondered.

 

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