Synopsis: After a storm kills his wife and daughter, Johnny Qullio vows to journey to Mount Evergreen, home of the gods in the faraway east. There he will sing his lament to the gods and demand to know why the good and innocent were taken away. His village gives him everything he needs for the trek and more, and he sets off on the eastbound road. At the Wide Highway, he is taken in by hidden dwellers of an otherwise abandoned town. They tell him what to expect on the first few days, and next morning he sets off again.
The Gods of Evergreen
Part 3: A Chance Meeting
Part 3: A Chance Meeting
Past the Wide Highway, it was as the woman had said. The road east had fallen trees in the way and sometimes disappeared under the debris; few people went into the abode of the gods, it seemed. But none of the obstacles gave trouble to one on foot, and Johnny was used to walking wherever he needed to go. His pack grew lighter with each meal, and he began hunting and foraging in earnest. Each night, he fell asleep rehearsing the questions he would ask of the gods when he entered their court. Each day, he watched the mountain grow ever closer. Finally, on the tenth day of his walk — farther east than any in his village had gone in living memory — the road curved away to the north to skirt the mountain. A narrow way, one that was spoken of in legend, led up the mountain. It was late in the afternoon, and Johnny knew that he would sing his lament and ask his questions on the morrow.
Rounding one of many curves, the way widened and Johnny stumbled upon a camp. He saw two people: a woman and her child, a little girl. The girl saw him first, and broke into a grin. “Hiiiiiiiiiiii!” she trilled, and ran to Johnny, wrapping herself around his leg. He watched the woman watching him, bow dangling from his hand, and shrugged.
“Marie!” the woman called. “Come to Mama. Now.” Her words were clear, but she spoke with an odd accent that Johnny could not place. The little girl looked at her mother, then up at Johnny. She seized his hand and pulled him to her mother’s camp.
“Your pardon, good lady,” Johnny said. “But perhaps you should have brought your daughter’s toys with her on this journey.” He grinned.
The woman smiled: nervous still, but beginning to warm. “She’s usually not so friendly to strangers. Perhaps we are safe with you?”
“I am no man to harm you or your charming daughter. Even if I were, I would think that it would go badly for a man to meet the gods with blood on his hands.”
“You go to see the gods, you say? There — well, you should see for yourself.”
“I understand: each person will meet the gods in a different way, as they see fit. No? But I should move on while there is still some light and find a place to camp.”
“No! No! No!” the little girl shouted, still clasping Johnny’s hand. “Stay!”
“Marie, the man —”
“I am Johnny Qullio, of the village west of the Wide Highway. Please call me Johnny.”
“Johnny! You stay!”
The woman shook her head. “Johnny has to find his own place tonight, dear.”
Marie shook her head, and tugged Johnny to a spot across the path from her mother’s camp. “Your place. Here.”
“My name is Kata. I have no family to name. It seems that we are as well met as two strangers may be, in the domain of the gods. Johnny Qullio, it is in my mind — and heart — to trust you tonight. May the gods smile on those who do not break that trust.”
“And Kata: may the gods pour out their wrath on those who do not deserve the trust of the defenseless. Will you and Marie share my supper tonight?”
They would, and did. Marie never left Johnny’s side that evening, often hugging him, until she finally climbed into his lap in front of the fire and fell asleep. Kata retrieved her daughter, who grumbled in her sleep but did not waken, and laid her in their tent before returning to the fire.
“Will you go up the mountain tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yes. Kata — I go to ask the gods questions, questions that may provoke their anger. I do not know whether I will leave the mountain tomorrow walking or soaring to whatever afterlife they have prepared for me… so I ask you to keep my pack tomorrow. If I do not return, it and all that is in it is yours.”
“But your pack frame — it’s of the ancients, no? That is a treasure! How can you ask me to just keep it?”
“The village gave it to me, knowing I may not come back. I did not want to take it, but they insisted. As it was, they attempted to load the entire wealth of the people on my back.” He grinned.
“You said you live west of the Wide Highway? If — if you do not return, I will return your pack to your village and tell them of your kindness to a stranger on the road. And then, they may send me away.”
“My people would do no such thing. They would sooner take you and Marie as their own. We learned long ago that the gods are open-handed to those whose hands are open.”
“Then your people… thank you, Johnny. I will wait for you tomorrow and pray for your safe return.”