We've been walking for weeks through this damn forest. We're on a rest break and I'm away from the others, inspecting my shoes and trying to get a little peace and quiet. The others are always yammering. I'm tired of the whole thing. I don't even know why they brought me except that I can conjure, which is handy at dinnertime.
Ptolemy steps out of the shade and I say Hey, Gandalf! which is a little joke due to his favored getup: robe, staff, voluminous beard. Mostly it's the beard of course - I have the same robe and staff but nobody ever calls me anything funny because nobody ever talks to me, which is fine.
Jesus, he says, Call me Dave already. We have to talk.
He makes me sit on a big rock while he paces around. He knows me but tends to slide into the usual theatrics when he's got a lot to say. I've never been terribly impressed or taken in by Ptolemy's schtick - powerful stride, weary grace, hushed fortunetelling, gentle until proven ferocious - standard wizard stuff. On the other hand, behind all the trappings is a pretty cool guy, one I deeply respect and care for. He's been my only conversational partner on this journey, usually walking apart from the group but coming back in the evenings to share what he's seen up ahead. Even if we only speak for five minutes it makes my day better, because like I say, none of these kids think I'm worth talking to. Ptolemy has been a friend for a long time and is rapidly becoming beloved to me. Every time I see him I want to kiss him on the cheek, though I suspect that may be a spell because I know for a fact he thinks I'm cute.
So he's striding and pontificating and what it amounts to is that I'm the chosen warrior. Out of all of us, I'm the one who has to go on ahead, traveling at night, concealing my presence and preparing to do battle with something terrible in the heart of the forest.
I'm stunned. It doesn't make any sense. Ptolemy's done talking and he's looking expectant but I don't know what to ask, except, Uh. Won't that be dangerous?
He sighs. Hon. You're in so much more danger right here. You really have no idea, and I'm glad you don't. But you need to get moving.
But doesn't it make more sense to stay with the group, I mean, these guys are professional trained fighters.
Yeah. They would tell you that. They're pretty worthless, sweetie. Guys who watched The Princess Bride one too many times and bought crappy swords at the ren faire. Kids who studied martial arts in high school and think that makes them badass. They're not going to be able to make a dent in what they're up against. Hasn't it occurred to you that I might have chosen one real warrior and surrounded her with a hundred decoys? I don't want to give away the ending, but that dragon's not where you think it is, it's going to attack from the rear and it's going to be hungry. I mean, uh, not necessarily a dragon, of course. Just something big, and, er, mad, that you have to kill. Anyway, I packed it a lunch.
I want to call bullshit but you don't call bullshit on Ptolemy. You also don't turn away from any responsibility he lays on you. I say, I'll get my things.
I don't need to take much, just the things I brought from home because I can't conjure them yet. A notebook, a satchel, spare shoes. I'm not good with leather. While I'm getting the stuff, this little kid runs up and starts asking questions. Becca. I forget why they brought her along - she's got some sort of powers, fire-throwing maybe, but I've never seen her do anything special other than nag me all day long and now I know whatever her talent is, it's probably not worth shit and she's as good as eaten. I can't even look at her. I've gotta go, I say.
Where? Where ya goin, where ya goin, etc.
I say, I gotta do a thing for Gand - for Ptolemy. He needs me to go check something out up ahead. It's no big deal, go play.
She shuts right up. PTOLemy?? she says. He's HERE?
Well no, I mean he's not RIGHT here, he was over by the stream last time I saw him. Why don't you go see if he's still there, go bug him instead of me.
She says, I can't. You know he never makes himself visible to mortals.
I say, That's a myth, that's just grandstanding. Never sleeps, doesn't eat cheese sandwiches, whatever. It's just another rumor meant to make him sound awesome. If he's so invisible, who've I been chatting up every night?
A guy's voice behind me says, real low, Ptolemy's here? He talks to you?
Yeah, of course he does - I turn around and see quite a few of my fellow "warriors" are standing there, looking very serious. A couple of them are kind of holding weapons. Fake warriors or not, a sharp blade is a sharp blade and suddenly this doesn't seem like the funnest. It occurs to me that I've never had a conversation with Ptolemy with any of these bohunks around, and that there might be a good reason for that.
I say, Hey, why don't I just go get him for you. He's right over this way - I back up a few feet and whirl and run, which I guess is the right thing to do because they are right after me, pounding and screaming. I don't know if they hate Ptolemy or me, but something's very wrong and I am scared shitless.
It doesn't take too long to lose them. Most of them are bogged down in heavy armor (they refuse to take it off, they paid good money). For weeks I've been carrying Becca when she got tired (if she promised to shut up) and without that burden I'm suddenly stronger and faster than I knew. And I know a very good trick of conjuring extra trees between me and the mob. I can only do saplings, but it's enough to slow them down, and before I know it I'm far away, safe, and alone, in a forest that's silent except for my own rough breath.
Ptolemy pops out of a tree and yells What the FUCK, Bennie?
I don't know! They started chasing me -
He cuts me off and treats me to a lecture, which I punctuate with apologies until he tells me to shut up. I wasn't supposed to reveal his location. I definitely wasn't supposed to do it out loud, where anyone might have heard. I screwed it all up and now the whole plan is shot. I feel like a little kid who was briefly allowed to hang out with someone older and more popular, infinitely cool, and then I messed it up, slipped unforgivably back into disgusting immaturity and was told, Get lost. You're just a little girl. I've got a sick cold chill in my stomach and Ptolemy disappears.
The fruit I conjure for dinner is bitter and full of seeds. I curl up miserably under a tree and look up at the night sky through the branches. I say, I'm sorry, Dave, to the forest, but, for the first time, I'm pretty sure he is not there to hear me.