Grine stepped off the path and through ferns that grew taller than he did.
Moss abounded in this part of the forest. There was the jewel-green carpet moss that was good for stopping bleeding, there was the feathery trailing moss that was good for packing a baby’s diaper, there was star moss that was good to eat when you had nothing else, and there was lichen that wasn’t a moss at all but two different things forming a union.
But no red moss.
The herbal woman had been very emphatic. Red moss.
His mother lay on her side, pale as the moon, dark rings around her eyes. She needed red moss to help her.
Grine kept an eye out as he wandered off path. The forest was damp with rain, so anything that wasn’t mouldy brown stood out. He saw a flash of red—the throat of a bird.
He had no picture to guide him. He supposed he would know a red moss when he saw it.
Unless, of course, the word “red” was just a name. Like the fruit that was called Blacknut even though it was violet with white flesh when matured.
Grine found a stream and stuck his mouth in it. It tasted of earth. Grine would never be lost in the forest, because he knew to listen for water. Water always fed the river, and people lived by the river.
He found a stand of dead moss on a lightning-struck tree. The mammoth fir was bigger than any other tree in the area. It was like finding the bones of a giant.
He pried some of the dry moss up with his little test-knife. It was only good for pricking baked tubers to check for doneness, it was so small and dull. His knife ceremony was years away. Mother had promised him a fine, sharp blade when the time came. He had to provide for the two of them.
The moss was not any shade of red, but an ochre brown. Grine sniffed it and tossed it away.
When his stomach growled he looked for the plants that held green leaves like flags over a bulging rhizome. His mother had shown him how to find things to eat in the trees, how to separate good plants from poison lookalikes. The leaves formed a tasteless mash in his mouth and were gone long before his hunger pangs. Grine had brought a quarter of her last pie for morale’s sake. The berry syrup tasted acrid. He rolled it around his mouth.
He did not know how to cook for himself yet. He could bake tubers without burning them, but he was wary of fire. He hadn’t been brave enough to spit meat or roast bread on the coals. Mother had promised to show him when he aged out of his timidness.
Grine heard the crack of a branch and made himself small. A dun shape moved through the trees. Grine had an acorn whistle to scare away wolves, but it would only draw a bear’s attention.
The shape drew closer, and Grine buried his head in the pine needles he lay upon.
The crunch of footsteps stopped.
“Get up, boy, if you’re living.”
Grine raised his head.
It was a hunter. Ald, who hunted with no dog or companion despite missing one of his arms.
Grine rose to all fours and accepted the hand held out for him. Ald was a tall, stocky man with a hand that swallowed Grine’s own.
“All alone, all the way out here?” Ald’s gaze was probing. “What fancy is this?”
Grine found his tongue. “No fancy. My mother—I need to get medicine for her. The red moss.”
Ald’s face set in a thoughtful frown. He shouldered his hunting spear and sat on a felled log.
He gestured to the seat next to him. “Next to me. I’ve got something to tell you.”
“The red moss—boy, it’s not what you think. No moss in the forest grows red on its own. Red moss is a hunter’s term. When you’ve blooded an animal, it drips on the moss and lets you track the beast. It means good luck and sustenance.” Ald shifted a bit. “What she’s telling you, boy, is that your mother cannot be saved. The red moss is death. By finding it, she’d hope you’d understand.”
After a moment he said kindly, “here, take my cloth. Wipe your eyes.”
Ald had to shift his skinning blade to take the cloth from his belt. Grine followed it through swollen eyed, the polished gleam of metal.
“I wish I had better words for you,” Ald said, “I was young when my own father passed. I had to brave the test of manhood on my own. It was slow going. And after that, when I realized that I would hunt only for myself, coming home to an empty hut until the day I married, I nearly gave up. But I must tell you that it will pass. The sorrow will leach out over time and—”
Ald opened and closed his mouth a few times, but no sound came out. He turned wide eyes to where Grine had buried the skinning knife in his side. Grine pulled it out, and Ald fell.
Grine knew to strike fast, Ald was still tall and fit, and he peppered the hunter with the blade.
Ald lay on his side, wheezing like a felled deer. Grine took the knife and dribbled the blood on the dry moss, going back for more several times. Then, without wiping the knife clean, he levered up a good amount and put it in his berry bag.
Ald breathed erratically, gazing up at nothing. Grine left him there, following his trail of broken branches back to the path. He hadn’t needed to follow a stream after all.
Mother lay on her side near the hearth of banked coals, still asleep, still ill. Grine fetched her mortar and poured water in it, setting a small piece of moss within just as he’d seen her do a thousand times. He ground it down to a thick slurry and then, holding her mouth open with one thumb, he fed the red medicine to his mother.