WFR is proud to serialize The Lost Machine in support of its author and illustrator, Richard A. Kirk. We will be reprinting the entire novel with its illustrations over the course of five weeks with a new chapter every Monday and Wednesday. Wherever possible, formatting has been made to match that available in the e‑book. This part of the serialization covers Chapter Two. To read past chapters, click here. – The Editors
Chapter Two: Leaving the Path
Taking leave of the stranger Moss entered the opening into thick underbrush and found his way forward through the forest. The path was narrow and at times vanished completely, leaving him to guess where it would reappear. The trees seemed to spread forever in all directions. Moss had only his internal sense of direction to rely on and the reserves drawn from a night of broken sleep. He knew his chances of survival were slim. If dehydration, starvation or exhaustion did not finish him, surely hypothermia in the night would. Still, as awful as such things were to contemplate, it was better to be active than awaiting death passively.
As he climbed through the dried vegetation, he dissolved pieces of ice in his mouth. Every now and then he came across a few withered berries missed by the birds. These were bitter, and almost made things worse, as his stomach cramped around them. In spite of the hardship, though, there were moments of euphoria brought on by the light and the open air. By late afternoon the sun had emerged from the clouds, and the temperature rose. He encountered dips in the path where melt-water turned the ground into a marsh. He edged around the pools on firmer ground. If the insides of his boots became wet, he would have no way to dry them.
The day wore on and Moss came to a rise in the land. For half an hour he walked up a steep incline as the sun raked the treetops. Darkness would follow quickly. He had no plan, beyond continuing to walk through the night. Stopping to sleep in the open would be suicide.
At the top of the incline, a surprise awaited him. The path became stony and zigzagged along the top of a ridge, before dropping at a steep angle into a section of woods very different in character from the terrain he had previously traveled. The understory dwindled and the pines which had been predominant were replaced with generously spaced hardwoods, dominated by ancient walnut and beech trees. As welcome as this change was, the real surprise was a small stone building secreted into a hollow in the slope.
He left the path and approached the building cautiously, but it was apparent from the surrounding growth and a layer of undisturbed snow that it had been abandoned for some time. Looking down into the woods, he saw that daylight was ebbing. The woods were silent but for the occasional squawking crow and the rustle of mice under the snow and leaves. The sense of loneliness was profound. Moss had read and taught enough fairytales to realize the foolhardiness of leaving the path and taking shelter in an old building, but he realized — regardless of the risks, more likely bears than goblins — that it was his only option. The temperature would drop with the disappearance of the light, and he was simply not equipped to deal with the cold.
The door was closed, but rotten. Ants or some other insects had devoured much of the wood, leaving only the walls between their tunnels in place. The lock had been forced long ago and sat rusted and fused in the crumbling wood. It offered no resistance as he pushed the door inward. The room inside was tiny and dark. A bed of sorts had been made out of lichen and leaves. A small hearth of stones in the centre of the room encircled the remains of a fire. Charred sticks and ash were covered by the gauze of overlapping cobwebs indicating that months had passed since the fire had been lit. The floor was littered with the bones of small animals and the bases of walls were riddled with mouse tunnels. Moss guessed it was some kind of hunting shelter, though what there was to hunt in this bleak landscape eluded his imagination.
He set his satchel of notebooks on the makeshift bed and began searching the nooks and crannies, looking for anything that might help him survive. Beneath the bed, as he moved some of the lichen aside, he saw the corner of a metal box emerging from the dirt floor. After a few minutes of scraping with a stick, he heaved the box from its cavity and moved it into the fading light by the door.
The box had once been red, but time had worn most of the paint away. He lifted the dirt-encrusted lid. Inside were several boxes of wooden matches. Most of the match heads had long since turned to mush from the damp. One box held promise though, and he stuffed it in his coat pocket. There were also two mildewed novels, and a scattering of ammunition shells but no gun. Three cans of food with tattered labels completed the haul, but he did not dare to open them.
He placed the box against the wall and went to the fire pit, where he arranged a few sticks and clumps of lichen over a mound of ash. The first match disintegrated against the side of the box. The second flared then immediately dwindled to almost nothing, before becoming steady. He rested it against the tinder and soon had a small fire.
Moss had been asleep for some hours when he awoke with a pounding head and a dry throat. He sat up, but a wave of dizziness drove him back into the lichen. The room had grown cold as the fire shrunk to glowing embers. In spite of that, he was hot and sweat covered his body. His impulse was to throw off his coat, but he resisted, knowing that if he did he would freeze to death. Fevered, he drifted back to sleep hypnotized by the collapsing embers.
He was overcome by nightmares and woke again in the pre-dawn, shivering violently. His muscles ached, and wondered if he’d had a seizure. Cold emanated from the ground. Knives of light jutted through chinks between the stones around the chimney hole. The pain of the light drove him back into the darkness of sleep.
It was the pressure of a hand on his forehead that startled him awake. He rose to a sitting position and rubbed the blur from his eyes.
“I thought you were dead when I came in.” Irridis was sitting on a stool that Moss had not noticed earlier. A donkey tugged at dry grass poking through the snow outside the open door. A fire crackling in the pit warmed the room. “I’ve given you something for the fever. It will make you a little light-headed for a few hours, but under the circumstances that can hardly be a bad thing.”
“How long have you been here,” Moss asked, finding his voice.
“Several hours. I found your tracks in the snow and followed them at first light.”
“Thank you,” said Moss, “for the medicine.”
“Sleep now,” Irridis said. “I will tend the fire, and you can eat when you wake.”
Moss closed his eyes and soon dreamed that he was a sea turtle drifting in the water column of a warm sea, to a coral reef the size of a city.