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 Updates:  Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books

​Chapter Three

It eats the flesh of fruits and men
Its hunger knows no bounds
We hear the clop of hooves and then
The Grumpsh has made its rounds

Virid heard it first, when they were already a hundred paces into the forest of columns. She had never passed through such a place, so her senses were tuned outward with anxiety. Madder, comfortable in the forest and lulled by their long sojourn, his thoughts turned to their next camp. This particular forest was not familiar to him, and yet the labrynth had a way of repeating itself. It was the test of a boy becoming a man to be led to an unknown path and made to find the way back alone. If a forager could not do this then he could never venture far enough to provide for his family.

Madder had as natural a sense of direction as anyone in the Combe. He was confident that he could lead them to the home of the Mauve families. The lay of the stones told him they were near a resting place. His inner eye was turned to it, and he did not hear the clack of hooves.

Virid grabbed his arm, her eyes wide. She had never seen a Grumpsh, she only knew that there was SOMETHING, and that SOMETHING was rarely good. Madder glared at her, but the purity of her alarm cut through his annoyance, and he heard the Grumpsh. The echo among the columns hid the origin of the sound.

"Grumpsh." He breathed the word. Virid knew the rhymes as well as anyone. Her instinct was to flee the way that they had come. Madder caught her before she could run.

"Too fast," he said. The Grumpsh would run them down if they panicked. In the forest, they could at least use the columns to their advantage. The area near the entrance was wide open. Virid didn't follow his logic. They were exposed, with nowhere to hide, and the Grumpsh would smell them whether they saw it first or not. They needed to be running, not standing. She writhed in his grip, and he almost lost her.

"There!" Madder hissed. A bristling brown bulk was wending its way through the columns behind them. It moved far too easily among the obstacles, light for its size, and eerily quiet. Madder pulled Virid in the opposite direction. She was hyperventilating, and still trying to get away from him. Its musk was in the air, which meant that it was close enough to know exactly where they were by scent alone.

There was a copse of close pressed columns nearby, and he half dragged his squirming companion to the temporary shield they offered. It was a trick of the trade never to look back at moments like these. You flee as well as you can, and try not to trip. When you can hear the monster closing on you with every step it isn't helpful to turn around.

Virid was now fully off the ground. She weighed even less than he had expected, and it was easier to carry her than to drag. Some atavistic instinct had awakened, and she clung to him instead of struggling. Madder picked speed, no longer concerned with noise. The Grumpsh had begun to emit squeals of anticipation, and its tongue lolled out of its snout and over its large square teeth. Its tusk caught on a column, jerking its huge head to one side, drawing a scar along the stone. Madder slipped, there was water rising from between the flags. He felt the breath of the beast upon his back. Virid, opening her eyes upon its face, screamed.

He didn't drop her, didn't fall. In an instant they had passed between two pillars too close for it to follow.
The Grumpsh slammed against the slender barriers and stone dust exploded in a cloud. Madder stared at the monster. He had never before had an opportunity to examine its scarred, leathery face; the pale menace of its tusks, and its wild eyes spinning in their sockets. It slammed the columns repeatedly, and though they were no thicker than Madder's own legs they did not mar or crack at its assault. He laughed, utter relief. The beast startled at the sound, regarding him with too much cunning. Then it turned, and disappeared into the forest.
Madder squeezed Virid impulsively, and was suddenly aware of her blooming softness, of the nearness of her skin.

He set her down. She was in shock. Madder knew it was something that could happen after an encounter in the wild, a first brush with death. The copse was so dense that even Virid would not have been able to navigate some of the pillars. A quick search revealed a dimple in the stone where water rose into a clear pool. It had overflowed before, and a few small rills ran off into the forest. He had slipped on one of these. Madder noted a number of sigils around the well, both forager marks and traveler signs. 

"Thank you." The phrase was loud in the absence of monsters. Virid was looking at him with wide eyes, still shaking from their brief ordeal.

"You're talking now?" Madder asked, perhaps too shortly, for her face closed to him again and she shrugged.
Madder shrugged back. It was easiest to submerge this new mix of feelings he had for her in contempt. She had almost killed them both, freezing up like that. A stupid child. Already, he had forgotten she had heard the Grumpsh before he had.

The sigils said this was a safe place, and provided rough directions to nearby landmarks. The water was unclean, they said.

"Don't." Madder stopped Virid when she went to drink. "We have to use the firestone." 

She wrinkled her nose, but didn't argue. Her mother hadn't known the forager signs, so she didn't, and she had to accept Madder's interpretations. It didn't mean she respected him any more for it. Madder brought out the hollow horn, as well as the netted gourds. The memories were strong.

Father Rouge let the fire rock fall into his hand to show it to his son. It was a flaky oval, like the hardier mushroom pods that had to be peeled.

"These are rare," he told Madder. "These are precious."

He peeled off a flake with a snap, and pressed it with his thumb into Madder's palm . "They are dangerous," he said. "They make fire from water until there is none of either left." The flake stung, and Madder had to fight to keep from jerking his hand away. "There is water on your skin, and water inside of you. There is water in the breath of life. That is why they are so rare. That is why we keep them safely in the horn. They must not burn for nothing."

With a yelp, Madder tore free. His palm was already red, and would soon raise a small blister. The flake smoldered on the floor, smoke rising from it in a whisper. Father Rouge smiled at him, displaying a calloused thumbpad.

"You understand?"

Madder nodded, and a question occurred to him. "What would happen if you swallowed it?" Father Rouge grimaced. There were some things a forager did not try.

Madder filled a gourd with the unclean water. Then he carefully snapped off the tip of a flake and dropped it inside. He handed the gourd to Virid before repeating the process with a second and replugging the fire rock in its horn.

Virid's gourd was shaking in her lap, emitting curls of steam. The water was boiling, Madder held his by the cords, waiting for it to still. Only once it had cooled to the temperature of a living body could they be sure the rock had burned completely away and the water was safe to drink. Sometimes pods and fungus could be cooked in the same way, but it was a wasteful practice, avoided unless the food was obviously corrupted. For a forager, the firerock was indispensable, and for a family in search of a new Combe, even more so.

A family? Madder corked his gourd, he would wait a few hours before he drank from it. Virid was not his family, and yet they had no one but each other. She was small and did not know the way. She needed his protection. 
"Do you want to hear a story?" He asked. Her gaze passed by his, a meeting as brief and light as the brush of death moths wings.

He took this as an assent.

"Once there was a hero," Madder began, "and he went every day out of the Combe to do a hero's things. He was so great that they knew him in a hundred families, and if he went to them each one would feed him with their sweetest fruits. He knew the Labyrinth and the Labyrinth knew him. One day a Grumpsh despoiled the gardens of the people, going from place to place. The hero heard the wailing of the people, and he went about the passages in search of the beast. His eye's were keen, and he found the trail without difficulty..."

Madder counted himself a good storyteller, pausing at the right moments and making noises when they were called for. This was a long story, and one of his favorites, but it had a nasty ending. He wasn't going to get that far.

Virid wasn't listening, she cradled her gourd and looked out into the forest. There was nothing there. She didn't care what he had to say, did she? She didn't appreciate how he had saved her at all.

Madder picked a small pebble from near his feet and threw it at her. She flinched when it struck her shoulder. Madder made a face at her and turned around to go to sleep.

She was looking at him now.