Brine broke into a trot. “Hey! Hey, Jaysh! Wait up! Can I walk with you?”
     His brother craned his head back at him, but his pace never slowed.
     “Hey, thanks,” Brine said, offering a smile as he drew beside him. “It’s just that I feel like we haven’t seen each other in…,” he trailed off, partly to catch his breath and partly to do the math, “…well, in eleven ages or so, I imagine. And when we finally do get together, we have our meeting with father, then the burial, then more meetings.” Then your unexpected disappearance from the castle, he thought, but did not say. “And now it looks like we won’t see each other until after the missions. And who knows how long they’ll take. Depending upon what we find in the Harriun, Godfry thinks ours might take weeks.”
     Speaking to the woods on his right, Jaysh said, “Tha’s what Iman said.”
     “See, that’s what I mean,” Brine agreed, feeling this was going much better the second time around. “We need to talk. Catch up on things.”
     “Ah’right,” Jaysh said, eyeing a row of noble firs.
     “All right,” Brine said, smiling broadly. “We’re on the same page, then. That’s a good starting place—great, actually…,” he trailed off, taking time to think. “So, um…so how’ve you been, Jaysh? Have you been well? Well in His eyes, I mean?”
     Jaysh nodded. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging. “I reckon that’s about right.”
     “Good, good. Good. You, um….you look well,” Brine said, studying the back of his brother’s head as his brother studied the back of the royal gardens. “So are you excited about the missions?”
     “Not really,” Jaysh said, spitting a stream of saliva from the side of his mouth.
     Brine frowned. “Oh, uh…me…me either. I’m actually a bit nervous about mine.” He lowered his head to the infamous flagstone path, watching it veer out of the grass on his left and carry on beneath him. “I know it’s silly,” he said. “I know we’ve been at peace with Lathia for nine or tens ages and nothing has happened since then, but I just have this feeling…,” he grimaced and checked Jaysh’s expression, but Jaysh either hadn’t heard him or didn’t care.
     Stepping onto one of the flagstones, Brine said, “Godfry told me I was being paranoid. He said Counselor Sneel was certain to hire the best and the brightest from his homeland and that we’d be in good hands, but…but I’m not sure I trust Sneel.” He glanced again at his brother. “Have you ever spoken to him?”
     Jaysh was tracking what appeared to be a brown blur as it bounded out of the trees. “Huh-uh,” he said.
     “Yeah, see,” Brine said, making another grimace. “I just think that’s kind of was odd, you know? Everyone else is so warm and inviting, and yet no one introduces me to him—or to us. It’s almost like the other counselors don’t want to talk to him, either. So he keeps to the shadows and…,” the scene from the anteroom came flashing back to his mind, that stooped head bent from the shoulders, those sleepy gray eyes sweeping over the boards, “…he’s a bit quiet,” Brine said, not yet willing to reveal his hallucination. “What do you think? I mean, from what you’ve seen of him?”
     Jaysh seemed to emerge from the world of trees looming on his right and said, “I cain’t rightly say.”
     “Oh,” Brine said, lowering his shoulders. He was disappointed—oh, yes—but not surprised, not after what he’d seen on the night of their father’s passing, the way Serit and Mums prodded Jaysh into the anteroom, the way Jaysh had stared at everyone as if they were death incarnate.
     Brine said, “Well, I don’t trust him. I don’t know why—I don’t have a good reason,” besides the way he shifts across a room without ever moving his feet, “—but I don’t trust the man. And it doesn’t help matters that he’s leading us into the Harriun.” He shivered minutely. “Do you remember those awful lessons from elementary studies about the sand and the boles and all the things that lived there?”
     Jaysh turned his head to check a piece of woods behind them. “Member what now?”
     “The lessons,” Brine said, somewhat curtly. “About the Harriun.”
     “Lessons,” Jaysh said, speaking as though he’d never heard the word. “I doan’ think so.”
     Brine jerked his head at his brother, just managing to stop the shocked retort from forming on his lips. Jaysh had to be funning with him—had to be. He was older than Brine by two ages and, therefore, the lessons would have been fresher in his mind than little brother’s. Not to mention these were the sort of stories that one did not easily forgot. They were the sort of stories that made you lock your doors at night and sleep with all the candles burning in the hall.
     “You don’t remember?” Brine said again, unable to believe. “You don’t remember Master Kurik telling us about the Place of Bad Trees?
     Jaysh seemed to make a pensive face, but Brine couldn’t tell if he were reflecting on their teacher’s name or simply peering into the fir needles. But it had to be the latter, didn’t it? It just wasn’t possible that he’d forgotten the man who oversaw the temple lessons, coordinated visits from specialist in the field, and had the worst breath of anyone in the world.
     As Brine recalled, the halitosis wasn’t so bad if Kurik remained at the front of the temple and addressed the class as a whole, but Owndiah forbid you raised your hand and ask a question. It would have been better to excuse yourself to the privy and stick your nose in the slop bucket than to allow Master Kurik to bend beside your pew and breathe his smelly answers in your face. Not that Jaysh had asked a lot of questions during their lessons, but even so, how could he have forgotten Master Kurik and the place of bad trees?
     But he has, Brine realized in horror. He has no idea what I’m talking about. It’s like the krysts all over again.
     “What about Reets’ stories?” Brine asked, skipping to something more recent, something that stood out even more vividly than elementary studies. “You remember the story about loggers, don’t you?”
     “Loggers?” Jaysh asked, speaking without interest. “What’d they do?”
     “They…they died,” Brine said, staring nervously at the side of Jaysh’s head and wondering if his brother was purposefully messing with him or if he really had gone insane during Brine’s leave of absence.
     As much as Brine didn’t wish to lean towards the latter, he was having trouble accepting that Jaysh would feign ignorance over such a trivial topic. His brother might be doing it to have a bit of fun with Brine—relive the good old days, right Rugs?—but Brine he didn’t think that were the case. Since observing Jaysh as he entered the king’s anteroom with Serit, Brine had the distinct impression that his brother was incapable of feeling, which meant that humor wasn’t an option and that this wasn’t a joke.
     “Tree fall on em?” Jaysh asked, lifting his petting-hand and scratching at his beard. 
     “No,” Brine said, his voice a whisper. In his head, he could see the bedtime scenario as clearly as he could see the leaf bits hanging in Jaysh’s hair. He and his brother were lying on their beds—blankets over heads and noses peeking out—and Reets was sitting at the foot of Brine’s mattress and recounting one heart-stopping tale after another.
     “Fendly sent them to push back the boles,” he said. “Sent them to cut back the Harriun and expand Arn’s Promise to the north.” He paused for a moment, waited for the rest of the tale to come back to Jaysh, and then sighed painfully as it became apparent this would not take place. “They all disappeared,” he said at last, “somewhere in the boles.”
     Almost absently, Jaysh said, “Din’t come out, huh.”
     “No,” Brine said, “they didn’t.” Then, nearly choking on the spit he’d somehow forgotten to swallow, he said, “But there were some that did come out. Or there were stories about them.” He opened his mouth to speak the tales, then stopped. Did he really want to do this a third time? Did he really want to hear how Jaysh had forgotten yet another memorable event from their past?
     But I have to know, he thought. If he’s truly suffered a head trauma and it’s affecting his judgment and ability to rule, then someone needs to help him, right?
     Or stop him, the fire voice chortled.
     Or stop him, Brine thought, unaware that the belly-fire didn’t sound half as offensive as it had before. If he’s unstable, he’ll need stopped.
     “Reets used to tell us about the trappers,” Brine said, watching closely his brother’s reaction. “After so many ages, the legends lose their power, he’d tell us, and then some blame fool,” he made quotations with his fingers to indicate Reets’ word choice, “would decide the legends were false or that he was indestructible, and then he’d venture into the boles for a look-see.
     “Most would vanish like the loggers of old, but on occasion, there were those who escaped.” Brine paused to frown at his brother’s blatant look of disregard, then said “The field hands would find them, the men and women in the Promise. They’d find them crawling out of the sands on their stomachs…naked as fish and…and caked with gore…”
     Jaysh slowed his mastication, gave the hint that he might speak, then did not.
     Brine shook his head in frustration. “You honestly don’t remember those stories?”
     Glancing over at him, Jaysh said, “Nope.”
     “How can you—I thought you…I thought those stories were the reason you and Iman went to the Harriun.” He was nodding his head. “Yeah. I remember. It was right after Iman moved in with us. He’d heard about a handful of Reets’ stories and decided he had to have a look at the place. The advisers were against it—forbade it, actually. But the two of you went anyway, snuck up there early one morning and had a look around.” He shot a suspicious look at his brother, patches of red forming on his cheeks. “At least that’s what you told me.”
     No longer staring at the rear of the garden, Jaysh wrinkled his nose and said, “Did I?”
     Brine leaned towards him. “Yes! You did!” he said, unaware that his voice had risen to a shout. “Because right after your alleged visit, you and Iman started scaring me off with whatever-it-was you saw there. Instead of running away from me, you’d start screaming for me to run, screaming that it had followed you home and was hiding in the bushes, screaming until I went crying to the castle!”
     And they had, too. Even though the baffled expression on Jaysh’s face had not changed and he gave no indication he remembered, Brine sure did. The memories were fuzzier now, black and white, colorless and frayed, but they were still easily accessible in his mind.
     He could see both boys looking up from whatever game they’d been playing—pull-the-arms-off-bugs was a personal favorite, as was make-mud-with-your-spit—he could see himself shuffling tentatively towards them from the kitchens, and then they’d immediately look to the nearest clot of foliage and the nightmare would begin.
     Sometime it was a copse of maples or a row of evergreens, other times it could be a patch of sedge or a clump of firs, but the result was always the same. Both boys would pretend to listen, at which point Brine would stop dead in his tracks and stare horrified in the direction of their attentive stares, and then Brine would hear them muttered about how they could hear it, asking the other one if they could hear it, too. And when the other said they could, both sets of mouths dropped open, both pairs of eyes would bulge, and they’d start jumping up and down and making the worst faces Brine had ever seen.
     There it is, Brine! It’s in the bushes! It’s in the bushes over there! You better run, Brine! You better run! It’s gona get'cha, Brine—It’s Gona Get'cha!
     Once, in the throes of his passion, and in order to add incentive to Brine’s pace, Jaysh had pitched a chunk of flagstone at his brother heels—just to scare him, of course—and had ended up striking him in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious and painting the lawn red with his blood…but that had only happened the one time. For the most part, they only screamed.
     And Brine had responded, bolting across the grounds with all the speed and power his tiny legs could muster, face twisted in anguish and eyes leaking tears. And if a row of decorative shrubs got in his way or a bed of thorny roses or anything else for that mater, he ploughed right through them, low-lying branches whipping his cheeks, briars tearing his arms, trunks bludgeoning his toes.
     Sometimes he’d find Godfry or Mums and they’d walk him back to the garden and give the boys a piece of their mind, but usually they were busy with the business of the kingdom and Brine was forced to bury his face in the apron of Miss Trueaxe, the head maid, and she only stood there, waiting for him to release the sides of her dress and allow her to continue with the chores. She didn’t give care one about him or Jaysh or anything else that happened in the garden and, for the remainder of that day, neither did Brother Brine. He’d retire to his room to read, or he’d find Godfry in the library and read with him, and then, the next day, he’d forget his trauma and try the garden once more.    
     Directing his face to the bright blue of the sky, Brine said, “What was it you called it? A soul-tease or a mole-sleaze or something with an ies on the—”
     “Skullries,” Jaysh said, appearing to speak to the flagstone beneath his feet.
     “Yes!” Brine said, whipping towards him and brandishing a finger. “That’s what it was. That’s what you used to scream at me!” He looked down, mouthing the monster’s name like a dirty word in the presence of his God, and felt his old fear pounding in his chest. It was as if the beast’s name were a wicked incantation summoning demons from the land of Time Forgot.
     He felt the ground pounding at his feet, saw the nearest gate looming in the distance, heard his own ragged breath tearing at his ears. But most of all, he felt that old terror knocking on the walls of his chest, that cold certainty that at any moment the skullries would land upon his back and start tearing at his throat.
     “Skullries,” he whispered; then thought, If I had a coin for every nightmare with that name booming in the background, or for every time I woke up with that word forming on my lips, my brother’s hoarse screams still echoing in— 
     He spun towards Jaysh, indignation in his eyes. “So you do remember.”
     Jaysh lifted his head and gave it a timid shake. “I think Iman tol’ me,” he said.
     “So he remembers?”
     “Maybe,” Jaysh said, turning to the wall of foliage. “Maybe not.”
     Brine let his eyes dart to the side, considering what his brother meant. Then, shooting his eyes back to Jaysh, he said, “You think he made it up?”
     Jaysh shrugged as if he didn’t know. “He’s like that.”
     Yes, he is, Brine thought, looking back down and watching the irregular plate-like stones veered off to the left. His brother continued in a straight line and Brine followed beside him, still unsure what was more upsetting: the fact he’d been lied to by these thugs or the fact he had no idea what to expect in the Harriun?
      The latter, he finally answered. As awful as it was to believe in a skullries and to believe I was marching to its lair, at least I knew its name.
     Now, with one eyewitness a mush-minded hick who couldn’t seem to remember what he’d done the day before, and the other a blithering narcissist who’d lie to his own mother for a few loose coins, Brine didn’t know what to expect in the Land of the Bad Trees.
     Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his brother stop. He did the same, looking up and finding himself at the edge of the garden’s east side, the place where the groundskeepers stored the unsightly items needed for maintenance; A mound of flagstones heaped to one side, a birdbath on the other—halfway through a new whitewashing—a sack of fertilizer beyond that, horse apples from the smell of it. Beside the pile of irregular, disc-like stones, a rake leaned against the shoulder-high wall, a scythe beside that, a shovel on the ground. The handle of the shovel had been shattered to splinters, the look of a handle that had met with a rock or root that simply would not budge.
     Jaysh stepped over the shovel and propped his foot on the pile of flagstones. As gently as he could, he shifted the cat-thing so that his thigh supported her weight. He cocked his head back to the trees.
     For someone who claims not to be worried, Brine thought, studying the intensity of Jaysh’s stooped brows and steady gaze, he sure acts worried. Brine turned and joined in his brother’s inexplicable search, hunting the motionless boughs to the north.
     “What’s back there?” he asked.
     Jaysh turned his head and spat a stream of hot, black fluid on the flagstones.
     You don’t say? Brine thought mockingly. Instead of having his question ignored a second time, he retrieved his seeing lens from its pouch and had a look for himself, directing the circle of glass at the wooded swath and taking in the details. Among them, he spied a few anomalies—a touch of blue here, a glint of sun there, maybe something moving through the undergrowth—but there was nothing so troubling as to offer Jaysh distraction.
     Although, now that I think about it, he wondered, was there anything blue and glittering back there in the trees when we— 
     “Hello, there!” someone cried from behind him. “I say, Sam’s Boy, is that you?”
     Brine turned around, directing his monocle at the caller and finding a daffodil-yellow gown and a long white beard hobbling along the path. He smiled warmly at his old teachers, an involuntary reaction even after all these ages, then turned back to face his brother.
    “Hey, I have to go,” he said, “but later, after I meet the others, maybe we—”
     But when he’d turned around, his brother was already gone. And in his place, there were only the flagstones.
     A heaping pile of thin, flat rocks.

The further adventures of Jaysh and Brine will continue in