Soft clouds drifted lazily across the blue sky, and tall mountains in the background cut shapes into the horizon with its dark stone and snowy peaks. A strong river flowed from melted snow at the base of the mountains, winding its way down and past a small country town that sat on an open plain. The river curved around the edge of the village in a way that forced those wanting to go west over a bridge that had stood longer than the town itself. It had perfect stone pillars and arches, both in presentation and in the ability to withstand the water swells that would happen yearly during the days that followed the winters. The open fields surrounding the town had tall, green grasses that crooked at the ends, and during the summers, as the grass started to brown, a strange summer weed would emerge with tall, dark stems that grew clusters of flowers that started yellow at the base and slowly became red the higher they grew. This gave the area its iconic name, the Fields of Fire.
This summer, there was a convoy that was heading out of the town; those within the small walls of the town watched as the imperial carriages cut through the landscape; their pristine white carriage tops were being towed by large dark steeds that looked as if they were made for the gods. Everyone inside the walls was packing their things and getting ready to depart near the opening of the town. But at the back of the town was one family getting ready in a different way. Instead of laying their bags onto the hard dirt, waiting to be picked up by the imperial carriages, they put their belonging into the back of a small cart. The wood creaked as each item was placed upon it; the wooden paneling was cracked, warped, and rotting in parts; the wheels were slightly different sizes giving the cart a distinct wobble as it went, and at the head was the family steed, a tired, yet determined-looking mule with a faded black coat that had started to go white at the ends.
The Father and son rushed from house to cart, loading everything they needed for the journey; food, clothes, bedding, and weapons were all loaded into the back.
The father clapped and rubbed his hands together vigorously as he chuckled to himself.
“All right, are you ready to go?”
The son tucked away the last of his belongings and stood up, stretching his back as he went.
“Yeah, I think so; I have everything I need, I am pretty sure.” He put his hands on his hips and looked down at his father, giving him a thumbs up. “But we should probably wait for everyone to load into the imperial carriages; I don’t know if there will be room to go around us on the road, and I don’t really want to be holding them up.”
The father laughed as he climbed onto the riding bench of the cart.
“Don’t be such a wimp; if old Gerty here can walk through the fire fields off-road, I am sure those big imperial carriages will be fine.”
The son winced slightly at the notion of holding up the king’s carriages, but it was not on him when his father decided to leave, so he slumped down in the back and pulled out a book as his father gently tapped Gerty on the rear and she started to pull the rickety cart.
The town itself was rustic, and each building had its own unique flair, but even so, everyone always laughed when they saw the father driving through town.
“Give up on that old cart, you fool; the king is paying us to evacuate; why bring that old beast and dying cart?”
“You wouldn’t understand; I have a lot of love for Ol’ Gerty here and her cart. They are family at this point.”
“You can’t have a family with a cart, or have the nights gotten that lonely since your wife left to work in the city?”
“Shove off, you’re just jealous. Besides, I’ll see the woman soon enough. You lot will never understand.”
The father’s son laughed in the back as he was gently shaken around, struggling to read on the patches of road that were particularly worn. The father continued to suffer ribbings from his friends as he made his way to the western side of town, trying his best to convince people of the journey. Eventually, one of his friends jumped onto the other side of the driver’s bench for the cart and gently patted Gerty on the back.
“I can’t believe this old thing is still kicking.”
“Oh, she can kick still; my eldest here found that out the other day. Could have sworn that the leg broke when it happened.” The Father laughed as his son lifted up his pant leg to reveal a welt.
“Yeah, Gerty may be old, but her kicks don’t feel it.”
The father looked over to his friend as the man was grimacing at the bruising on the son’s leg.
“So, you going to tell me I shouldn’t be doing this too?”
“Actually, no, I was going to say I look forward to hearing from you on the other end; I imagine it will be quite the journey.”
The Father looked shocked for a moment before leaning in slightly.
“But.” His friend added. “You know that this is going to add about two weeks to the journey, right? That is a long time to keep your wife waiting.”
“Oh, she will be fine; she actually sent a letter with one of her birds the other day encouraging me. I swear if it wasn’t for her, I would be much more sensible.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that.” The friend said with a smile.
“What about your other two? Where are they these days?”
“Well, they are off in other towns, but they are meeting us where we are stopping this evening. I mean, my eldest here is off with his wife elsewhere usually. But none of my kids could pass up the chance for this journey. So clearly, some people appreciate it.”
“Oh, they don’t count; you have clearly brainwashed them.”
“Nonsense, they just trust me when I tell them things, so I told them this would be fun, and soon we shall all be back together again.”
“I have a distinct memory of you enlisting the help of your youngest to herd cattle, and you nearly killed him because he refused to move even when the cattle charged because his dad said it would be fun.”
“Why does everyone keep bringing that up? I said he would be fine, and he was. Even if I did think that he was about to depart this world when the cattle got spooked. But he is still alive, and now he gets to come on this journey with me. So I see nothing wrong.”
The Father laughed with a hint of guilt behind his eyes as he talked about the near miss that nearly took his youngest son’s life.
“Whatever you say, you madman. Please find us on the other end; we would love to hear this story.”
“You, along with everyone else. You all mock us, but we are the ones telling the stories that people are listening to and sharing with others.”
The friend smiled and gave the Father a handshake before hopping off the cart and leaving him to his journey.
The Father was brimming with the confidence of a new day; he smiled ear to ear as he continued to be heckled and laughed at by his friends and fellow townsfolk. As he approached the western gates, the imperial convoy was scattered among the crowds of people, and the guards were all helping load the townsfolk’s belongings; one of them stopped and nudged one next to them.
“What is that?”
“That is a roadblock on wheels; that grinning idiot is either going to stall the whole convoy, or the entire convoy is going to have to go off the path to pass him. Either way, I don’t like that man or his stupid grin.”
The father looked over and accidently locked eyes with the imperial guards that had just been insulting them, so he smiled even wider and waved. Reflectively they waved back with fake grins and a look of confusion. The Father turned back to the front of the cart and watched as Gerty passed through the town gates.
“Here we go, son, the journey starts now.”
The son raised a fist without looking up from his book and cheered.
“Adventure.” He shouted, lowering his fist. He licked his thumb and turned the page.
The small cart took to the bridge slowly; Gerty’s hooves slipped on the stone from time to time, and moving became a crawl. Some of the townsfolk walked past the cart heading in the same direction. The father waved at them as they laughed at one another.
“Poor lass is doing her best, isn’t she?” They asked him.
“Yeah, she is; maybe I should kick my eldest here out to give it a little push. Save Gerty a little energy.”
The people walking next to them waved and patted Gerty on the head as they walked past, whispering to her as they went.
“Almost there, old girl; I hope you are not going too far.”
While it was obvious that Gerty was straining, she did not shy away from work; her eyes were focused, her form was perfect, and as they reached the crest of the bridge, she could feel the weight of the cart shifting in her favor, and she was able to rest. The father patted her on the back as she chugged along the flat top.
“Okay, beautiful, take it easy on the way down, slow and steady.”
Gerty shook her straggly mane of hair and snorted, her skin twitching as the local flies landed on her. Coming down the far side of the bridge was just as awkward as the way up; Gerty was slow but still slipped on the occasional tile, and there was a short moment where she nearly let the cart run her over, but she managed to keep her footing well enough, and they safely made it to the bottom, and they were on their way.
The fields of fire were in full bloom, but even a blind person could tell with the heat that was beating down over them. The father had rested a small cloth over his head to keep his neck and face guarded, while his eldest son had himself nestled under crates that were propped upon one another to create a shaded cavity for him to read in.
The two of them headed down the road, leaving the hustle of the imperial carts behind. The father had a map laid next to him with hand-drawn markings all along the path they were to take. He smiled as he took in a deep breath of air, exhaling he rested into the nook of the seat, content and ready for the journey ahead.