Bookmark page
View all


Font size:

Line spacing:








Times New Roman

Chapter 19 - Moswen

Staying downwind is a basic hunting tactic that even amateurs know to follow. It ensures that your scent doesn’t carry towards any potential prey, tipping off your position and scaring away your prospective meal. It also meant the gentle blowing breeze of the forest was caressing Moswen’s face and flowing through his shaggy, unkempt hair. Little pleasures.

Each step he took was carefully placed, never snapping any sticks, crunching any leaves, snagging any prickly brush, anything that would make noise, anything that would scare off his quarry. He chose soft tufts of grass, tickling his bare feet. Clear spots of shallow mud squished up between his toes, patches of dirt added temporary texture to the layer of grime already caking the soles of his feet.

He enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, but he appreciated the minutiae—the little pleasures—even more.

Beside Moswen was Kyrill, hunched over, holding his shield and Isha’s spear. Isha and Neera had been preparing breakfast most mornings thus far, so the two hunters set off to contribute the best way they knew how.

They had picked up the trail not too far back. In this case, as “trail” so often meant, they had come across tracks leading away from a fresh pile of boar shit. Moswen saw it first, Kyrill too focused on his handful after handful of trail mix. Moswen was still impressed with the big man’s ability to eat. He was like a teenage boy, constantly eating yet never gaining weight. They had just finished breakfast, too. The guy could eat.

Judging by the size of its footprints—and the size of its poo—the boar they were tracking wasn’t very big, but enough that it could still pose a threat. After holding their own against the monster bear, a lone boar would hardly seem like a challenge.

“Always respect your prey,” Kyrill said. “Ego, laziness, underestimation: all potentially deadly mistakes.”

Boars can be a tricky animal to hunt. One minute, you’re firing off arrows as you chase the little bugger through bushes and brush. The next, it’s turned around and charging you. It’s moments like those you really appreciate having a hunting partner, especially when that hunting partner just so happens to be carrying a large spear.

After successfully bagging their prey, they tied the boar’s feet around the spear and the two carried it back to camp. Isha was interested in using the boar’s hide and offered to skin the animal while Kyrill prepared a large cooking fire away from the rest of the camp.

“I’d love to stay and help,” Moswen said, “but while we were out hunting I noticed some berry bushes along the trail. Figured they’d be nice t0 use in our oats.”

“Ooh, can I come?” Neera asked excitedly.

Moswen looked to Isha, Neera doing the same.

“Don’t look at me. I’m not your mom.”

Moswen hadn’t realized just how close he had gotten to these three strangers. Not that he wasn’t a friendly and open person, but this was more than friendliness between passing travelers like he was accustomed to. This was family. Not flesh and blood, but familiar. It had already been years since he’d seen his real mother. And while Isha was cool and all, nobody could come close to replace the real thing. Still, it was a pleasant feeling to know he had people he could rely on, trust in, and maybe even help learn a thing or two.

“You have to be careful when foraging,” he told an attentive Neera. “Especially berries. In the wild, you’ll find some that are delicious, but others... are deadly. You’re better off not touching ‘em at all. Unless, of course, you know what you’re looking for.”

The two made their way back towards the area where Kyrill and Moswen had been tracking the boar. He wasn’t able to stop at the time as his attention was needed elsewhere, but even with just a cursory glance Moswen noticed the bushes along their trail were bursting with plump, juicy-looking berries, ripe for the picking.

“So how do you know which ones are bad and which ones are good?” Neera asked.

“A couple rules help simplify things. I met a guy once who was an expert when it comes to wild berries. He taught me. And now I,” Moswen said with a bow, making a grand showcase of the gesture, “will teach you.”

“You are such a dork.”

“First things first!” Moswen brushed past the mild insult, his stride not affected in the slightest. “While the type of bush, color and shape of leaves, texture, climate and season all offer clues about the berries you find, none are quite as important or as easy as the color of the berry itself. What would you say is your favorite berry?”

“Uh, raspberry, I guess?”

“If we found wild raspberries, would you eat them?”

“Are we sure they’re raspberries?”

It was a leading question, and fairly obvious at that, but Moswen was still impressed that Neera caught it.

“Good question. Yes, the color, texture, everything looks like the raspberries you’re used to. Maybe a little smaller than usual, but otherwise exactly what you’ve come to expect. You’re sure they’re raspberries.”

“Then sure, I’d eat ‘em.”

“Now what if you found another bush, but the berries were white instead of the usual red? Everything else is the same, just a different color.”

“I don’t know, probably not. That seems a little weird.”

“Do you know why they seem weird?”

“I dunno, why?”

Moswen grabbed Neera by the shoulders and began yelling directly in her face. “BECAUSE THEY WILL KILL YOU, NEERA!”

“Gods, dude.”

“Really, though. They will kill you. That’s your first rule of thumb: any berry that’s white is deadly and likely quite potent.”

“White berries bad, got it.”

“Humans are smart, naturally intuitive. We have an instinct when it comes to obviously poisonous plants. Unlike birds, those dummies. White berries set off alarm bells in our heads. We just know.”

“Makes sense, I guess. Are there other rules for obvious things to avoid?”

“Dots. Some are actually fine, but berries with dots, not just a solid color, can be pretty bad. It’s safer to just avoid those, too.”

“White berries bad. No dots.”

“Those two little rules will honestly save your life.”

“So what are the good colors?

“Purple! Like saskaberries.” He tilted to the side, looking past Neera. “Like those right over there.”

They approached a bush covered in berries, bristling with a gradient of color.

“Actually, these are not saskaberries. Saskaberries are purple and some of these are red. Also, saskaberries aren’t all that shiny, a very matte color. Kinda like the difference between raspberries and blackberries. Not just different colors. Blackberries have that shine, you know?”

“They’re also soft. Or, a different kind of soft.”

“Juicy. Which that shine is usually indicative of. Saskaberries, not so much. Probably a good thing these aren’t. They’re still sweet, but also have a bit of a nutty flavor to them. Not exactly what we’re looking for.”

Moswen picked off a clump of the berries and held them in his hand.

“So if these aren’t saskaberries, what are they?”

“If I had to guess, maybe huckleberries? Or chokeberries, but I hope they aren’t. I’m not exactly a fan. They always taste like they’ve gone bad.”

“Same. They have a weird tartness to them. I think that’s where they get the name from. Luckily for us, these aren’t chokeberries either. Those are red and purple like these, but black as well. Also, chokeberries are very shiny. These are a mix of shiny and matte.”

“Quit telling me what they aren’t. Am I right? Are they huckleberries?”

Moswen let out a nervous giggle. “Sorry, yeah, you’re right. Huckleberries are perfect, too. Exactly what we were looking for. Nice and sweet.”

“Kinda like me,” Neera said, half-joking.

“Well, Princess, help me pick some good ones.”

She cleared her throat. “Queen,” she corrected him.

He played it up, switching to the role of humble servant in an instant. “My apologies, my Queen. May her excellency take heed to only pick the ripest of berries, as some of these are still too light in color.” He bowed, one foot forward, one hand to his chest, the other raised in the air. He had no idea what he was doing. They both shared a laugh and got to work, filling up the bag with their harvest.

By the time they returned, Kyrill had already finished setting up a second larger firepit further away from their bedrolls and the rest of their belongings. The boar was roasting on a spit, just barely beginning to drip with juices. Kyrill had already set up a makeshift tray under the boar to catch it all.

“Really, Kyrill?” Moswen asked with a laugh. “An apple in its mouth?”

Kyrill was sitting near the fire, digging through his bag of trail mix and picking out pieces of dried fruit. His little collection of orange shards, likely apricot, laid in a small, shallow dish beside him. He looked like an overgrown child picking out the bits of a meal he didn’t enjoy. Like a delicious, steaming meat pie with a pile of cold, soggy peas beside it.

“What can I say? I’m a sucker for tradition.”

“Why do so many people put apples in their mouths? Not their mouths, but—you know what I mean,” Neera asked, as awkward as she was curious.

“It’s iconic,” Kyrill replied.

“For nothing,” Moswen declared, practically talking over Kyrill.

“He’s right, though,” Kyrill admitted. “There’s no real reason. It’s purely aesthetic.”

“Doesn’t even add any flavor or anything.”

“Unlike all these berries!” Neera exclaimed, grabbing the bag from Moswen and triumphantly holding it aloft. She handed the bag to Kyrill, who immediately opened it up and popped a berry into his mouth. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, a smile across his face as he savored the flavor.

“Mmm, these are so good. Are these huckleberries?”

“Yep!” Neera answered, bursting with pride and enthusiasm. “You can tell because blah blah blah a bunch of reasons.” Her Moswen impression wasn’t the greatest, but it got the point across.

“Gods, I’ve never had any this sweet. They’re perfect. Moz, I know you just went out looking for stuff, but I’ve got an idea for a little something special. I need some herbs to add to the mix, though. Some sage or rosemary or the like?”

“Say no more! Taking a stroll through this beautiful forest sure beats doing actual work. And Neera and I can continue our—”

“Oh!” Kyrill interrupted him. “Uh, actually, Isha’s near the rest of our stuff, making tea. Or ink? I can’t really tell. Whatever it is, Neera, I think she wanted you for something.”

“Oh, ok! Sorry, Moz.”

“Another time, my Queen,” he said with a bow. Moswen turned to leave as Kyrill popped another handful of berries into his mouth. “Hey, don’t eat all of those. I’m not making a third trip.”

Kyrill took another berry—just one—and popped it into his mouth before closing the bag, making a big show of it. While Moswen hadn’t known Kyrill for an incredibly long time, they’d grown close enough for him to gain some insight into Kyrill’s general mood. In all that time, the big lug hadn’t seemed incredibly happy. And now here he was, smiling, playfully mocking Moswen. If getting kicked out of Shaded Seed had worried Moswen, it didn’t anymore. If anything, it might have been the best thing to ever happen to the big man.

Finding specific herbs, or any herbs at all, proved more difficult than his previous foraging expedition. Berry bushes were not only easier to spot from a distance, but he also knew roughly where to find them. While sage and rosemary weren’t uncommon in the area, he had nothing to guide him, instead simply hoping to stumble upon something by chance. Eventually, after almost circling around to the exact opposite direction he originally headed from camp, he came across some wild rosemary. The plants were small, but gave off a powerful aroma. Unsure of how much he should gather and more than a little impatient after the arduous amount of time he spent finding it, he uprooted entire stalks by the handful.

Returning to their temporary camp, Moswen came across Isha and Neera hunched over next to their small fire, delicately mixing a cup of something. As Kyrill said before, it was difficult to discern whether they were in the process of making tea or ink. Boiling water, honey, mugs, stirring spoons: it was all the same to the uninitiated. It seemed as if Neera was being given just such an initiation.

“Careful, not too vigorous now,” Isha told her. “Don’t want any bubbles forming.”

“Hey, y’all. I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”

“Hey, Moz!” Neera said, looking over her shoulder as he approached.

As he got closer, he could see Neera’s mug wasn’t filled with tea, but a chalky dark paste. Ink it must be then. Isha carefully added a couple more drops of water to the mug as Neera continued to stir.

“Where’ve you been?” Isha asked. “I thought you and Kyrill were prepping that boar.”

Moswen raised his bouquet of rosemary and gave it a gentle shake. “That’s what all this is for. What should be the final ingredient. Kyrill’s got something special up his sleeve.”

“He’s been slaving over our meal all on his own while you’ve been out picking flowers all day? Now I feel bad for squirreling Neera away over here.”

“Don’t worry about me!” Kyrill yelled through the trees. “I’m doing just fine over here!”

“Gods, he heard that?”

“I did! We’re not really that far away from each other.”

“Want some company anyways?” Moswen yelled to him.

It was hard for Moswen not to notice Isha had been actively avoiding Kyrill ever since they left Shaded Seed. She knew Kyrill held no animosity towards her for getting kicked out of the barren—even he knew it was for the best—but she clearly still felt bad about it. At least enough to make her feel uncomfortable, even if just slightly so.

“By all means!”

The three rounded the bend of trees that separated the two camps. In the neighboring clearing, they found Kyrill lying flat on his back next to the fire, his hands behind his head, a big grin beaming across his face. Truth be told, it was a little unnerving. Moswen wasn’t accustomed to the overflowing positivity.

“Could one of you tend to the pit?” Kyrill asked. “Keep that fire nice and steady.”

Neera picked up a few pieces of unused firewood piled up near Kyrill’s pit and gently leaned them against one another like the struts of a makeshift tent. She must have been paying attention to Isha’s lessons.

“You know,” Kyrill continued, still lazily spread out on the ground, not even opening his eyes. “I’ve always heard tending to a fire is a lot like a woman. Though I wouldn’t really know, of course. I’ve never been with one.”

“Quite the thing to admit out of the blue there, Kyrill,” Isha commented. “But that’s actually pretty accurate. Warm and nourishing, but if you mistreat us we’ll burn your house to the fucking ground.”

Neera took a big sniff of the roasting boar. “Mmm, this smells wonderful, Kyrill.” she exclaimed, hoping to change the conversation to something less awkward.

“Just you wait, little lady. I’ve got a special secret recipe in mind: an apricot-berry sauce to drizzle over the top. Gonna take some of the berries you scrounged up earlier and those bits of apricot from my mix, let that simmer for a while until the berries get all mushy, then add a bit of honey, some of that fresh rosemary and the rest of the berries.”

“So much for a secret recipe,” Isha said, looking confused and slightly concerned.

“Where’d you learn how to cook like this, Kyrill?” Neera asked.

“Camilla...” he said wistfully.

“His childhood crush,” Moswen explained.

“My still-as-an-adult crush,” Kyrill explained further. “Pity she’s already happily married. And that whole banishment issue.” A twinge of regret crossed Isha’s face, her brow furrowed in disgrace. “But hey, at least I’m bonded now.”

“Wait, bonded? When? With what?”

“Not what. Who. I was really hoping you’d kinda just know. We’re bonded, Moz. Me and you, buddy.”

What the fuck is going on?

He couldn’t be serious, could he? Kyrill wasn’t much for jokes, though he wasn’t usually in quite such a jolly mood. Was what he was saying even possible? Can people bond with other people? He had felt a curiously strong connection with his new best friend. Was that because of their bond? Holy shit, was he really bonded to Kyrill?! Did that make him Kyrill’s pet? Did that mean Chione had been right the whole time? Kyrill did find his bond in the forest, just as the old woman had said. And sure enough, Mido had led him right to it. Only it turned out it wasn’t the kid’s dog after all.

“Kyrill, you’re being awfully forthcoming right now,” Isha mentioned, her voice calmer than usual, careful. “You feeling alright?”

“Yeah. I feel great!”

Isha walked beside Kyrill, the bag of berries at his side. She lifted it up, inspecting them with a worrisome eye. “Have you eaten any of these already?”

“Quite a few! But don’t worry, there should be plenty left for the sauce.”

“Moz, these berries... were there others that were a yellowy-orange color?”

“I dunno,” he said, slightly worried, slightly more guilty. “There were some that didn’t seem quite ripe yet.”

“The bush, did it have thorns? Dark leaves?” Isha was speaking quicker, her words blunt.

“Maybe? I’m not sure. Is everything alright?”

“Everything’s fiiine,” Kyrill reassured him from his place on the ground.

“Everything will be fine. I hope.” She turned to Kyrill and extended her hand. “Alright, big man. On your feet,” she ordered. He shrugged and did as he was told, grabbing Isha’s hand and pulling himself up. “Jumping jacks. Do ‘em,” she said, snapping her fingers.

Isha turned back towards Moswen and reached into her leathers. “Those aren’t huckleberries. It’s shadethorn. Rare, but easy to mistake. I’ve never witnessed it myself, but I’ve heard stories. My old MC would distill the juices into a kind of poison or something that worked like a truth serum of sorts. Used it for interrogations.”

Moswen had been holding his breath and let it out in a long, relieved exhale. “So he just can’t help but tell the truth? That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“It’s still poison!”

Moswen’s stomach dropped. He glossed over the first mention of poison, or subconsciously ignored it, but it was crystal clear the second time around. Kyrill had been poisoned. By him.

“Why the hell would they use the stuff if it was poison?!”

“Like I said, I never saw it in use myself. But I imagine it was only used in dire situations and on people that were better off dead anyways. Once they gave up what they knew, they weren’t of any use to anyone.”

“Is Kyrill gonna die?!”


Toss a Coin to Your Author
Enjoying the story? Consider tossing a couple bucks in the tip jar and help keep it going! If you'd like to get some fancy perks while you're at it, become a patron!
Support The Leeches Loom

the empire
The Howl
The Mazewilds
The Shelf
Shaded Seed
Wayfarer's Ridge
A Gentle Scar
Tiller's Hamlet