They’d followed the path for what seemed like hours. Even though they’d been going only just over the hour, the mutterings and grumbling had grown to a level which had begun to infect even Jim’s famous positivity. He’d really wanted to get them out of the wood before nightfall, but had to acknowledge their current pace wouldn’t get them close to achieving this aim. Accepting he’d been a touch over-optimistic, Jim suggested they stop at the next clearing for a rest and a brew. Almost immediately, the mood of the group raised and the pace picked up, which was just as well as the next clearing was further away than Jim had expected. They’d been appearing at what he’d started to think was suspicious regularity, so this last leg had both covered more distance than he’d expected and settled his concerns.
The clearing was larger than any they’d passed previously and there were signs in the middle of previous fires. Jim quickly nominated the freshest to gather wood, reminding them not to stray out of calling-out distance, before he turned his attention to settling down the older and less fit of the group as comfortably as was possible. He got Jen to distribute a square of chocolate to each member of the group, with a little extra for those who needed the boost, while he sorted out the kettles and flints, and reassembled the little framework he would erect over a portion of the fire for boiling kettles. Jen returned earlier than expected and gave him the bad news that there was no way their little group could travel further that day. Time was needed to dress sore and blistered feet, and some proper nourishment would be needed to fuel any further walking.
Sighing, Jim nodded his assent, before diverting a few of the returning wood gatherers and setting them to gather ground covering in order to provide the group with more comfortable bedding upon which to place their sleeping bags. With the wood gathered so far, he laid a fire and got it started. Having filled the kettle from the stream on the other side of the path, he got them boiling for tea. Leaving Jen to manage the fire and tea with a few helpers, he assembled their foragers for a foray into the woods. Grabbing a few decent-sized branches, alight from the fire to guide their way, he split the group into pairs, each setting off in different directions to see what they could find. They found mushrooms, a wide variety of berries and something that looked – and smelled – like rosemary growing on the higher and drier bits of ground. His foragering partner had him dig up some tubers which she decided would be safe to eat, and they collected some bones and two carcasses of recently dead small birds off the ground.
On their return, the kettles were removed, all but the one which made tea for the returning foragers, and large pots were placed over the fire. Other members of the group refilled the kettles and soon the mouthwatering aroma of mushroom soup filled the clearing. Wary of attracting wild animals, Jim ensured that lit branches were placed at intervals around the clearing, before settling down to his own bowl of soup. Hunks of bread from various backpacks got handed round, and the group settled down for the night with relatively full bellies. Having checked the supply of wood was plentiful enough to keep the central fire and the circle of lit branches going through the night, Jim divided the group up into sentries for 2-hourly stints throughout the night. The elderly were excused this duty, although old Josh insisted on taking his turn. That made Jim smile. Josh had been a great leader in his time and Jim had hoped to rely on his wisdom and experience on this trek.
The night having passed without incident, Jim had agreed the kettles could be refilled and a brew enjoyed before they set off once more, but not before he’d made clear they wouldn’t be stopping again until they’d cleared the woods. The foragers distributed the berries gathered the night before to provide some energy for the day ahead, before carefully storing the remaining herbs, mushrooms and extra bones around the group’s backpacks.
It was a tired and footsore group who finally broke clear of the wood as the sun was setting. Ahead of them the plain seemed to stretch out for miles. Despite the golden light of the sunset, it seemed barren and overwhelming. Jim ensured that wood was gathered, a fire lit and a surrounding circle of lit branches set up once again. Tea was brewed, a soup made after the foragers had returned, and Jen with her team of helpers had re-dressed the wounds and tended to the old and unfit. Even after soup and bread, and more of their valuable chocolate was distributed, the group remained unusually quiet. The sight of the vast plain had struck fear into all but the bravest of hearts. The night’s sentries found they weren’t alone in their wakefulness, for most of the group found it hard to sleep that night.
In the morning, old Josh took Jim aside for a quiet word, after which Jim invited Jen and the most experienced of their foragers – Cecilia – to join them. While tea and berries were distributed among the group by the remaining foragers, they discussed the problem of what lay ahead from every possible angle. In the end, Jim had to agree – they’d hug the edge of the wood for it provided them with abundant wood for fires, a stream for fresh water, and a source of food to be foraged. It would take them in a different direction to the one Jim had set his heart upon but he realised, now, that this group didn’t have the strength and stamina to cross that terrifying plain.
By the time this decision was made, most of the day had passed, so a decision was taken to make it a rest day. Mid-afternoon, Jim told Josh he’d scout ahead as this was a different path to the planned one and, leaving the group in the care of Jen and Josh, he’d set off, promising to be back in time for the evening meal. He’d made good progress alone and had soon scouted two days ahead. Then realising it would be dark soon, he rushed into the woods to find a suitable branch – both to light his way back and to signal to the group that he was returning.
Stopping at the stream to drink his fill, he noticed the far bank was now rocky. Gathering up some brush, he’d applied a spark. The burning brush lit up the area allowing him to notice the shallowness of the stream. Rolling up his trousers, he’d crossed the steam to investigate. The rocks were higher and smoother than he’d expected but as he cast his branch around, a greenish glint caught Jim’s eye. Moving in closer, he found an alcove, inside of which sat the greatest surprise of all. In the middle of the woods, miles away from civilization, was an extraordinarily beautiful bottle. Triangular in shape, with multiple sloping facets, Jim guessed it was made of crystal. Some of the surfaces glinted green, others blue, while most were clear. There was a large round stopper and it sat on a delicate square base.
Jim was drawn to touch it and, finding it cool, he’d moved his hand all around it. Finding no booby traps, he’d picked it up. Surprisingly heavy, he realised it was filled with a clear liquid. Removing the lid, he’d poured a small amount into his tin cup. Smelling it, he was surprised by the scent – it was entirely natural, not chemical, so he risked wetting his lips. Although it’d stung the cut on his lip, he’d swallowed a small sip. Instantly it warmed first his throat, then his stomach. Knowing he couldn’t delay without causing tremendous concern in the group, he’d poured the remaining liquid into his flash and, replacing the bottle, he’made his way back to the group with a decided spring in his step.
Having apologised for his delayed arrival and supped his meal, Jim was keen to take Josh aside to share his tale. Having offered Josh his flask, he’d been surprised when the old man had burst out laughing. Calling over Cecilia and the other foragers, Josh‘d asked them to smell and taste the liquid in order to identify the ingredients. Citrus offered one, coriander another, liquorice a third, angelica and juniper berries Cecilia stated firmly with a grin.
Jim looked at them puzzled “What are you lot on about?”
“Gin” said Josh, “it’s gin m’boy. You never tasted it before then?”
“Bombay Sapphire, if I’m not mistaken” chuckled Cecilia, taking another sip “it was my mother’s favourite.”
“But what’s it doing out here?” demanded Jim, trying to drag them back down to earth. “Well, from your description of the bottle, I’d imagine some uneducated savage thought it was the elixir of the gods and created a shrine for it.”
“Be serious you lot, are we in trouble do you think?”
“If no-one saw you take it, they’ll probably never notice it’s gone. Let’s hope so eh?”
© Debra Carey, 2019