This story was originally written as part of NaNoWriMo 2015. To read the complete story, go to the MISCELLANY section of this website.

The trees in the Herne were older than the mountains. They were the first things of the world, twisted and tall, trunks as wide as a giant’s ass. The trees gave off a smell of must, like a cabinet full of parchments and scrolls kept in the cellar of a witch. Jack sucked in the musty air. It was going to be a long journey to the nests of the herons.

It didn’t take more than a few hundred steps through the Herne before Jack met with his first obstacle. He knew the forest was filled with robbers and thieves, but to meet the king of the robbers on his first jaunt was quite a feat. Old Nog with legs as long as tall oaks stepped out from behind a tree and doffed his cap. He grinned his grin of three teeth and Jack knew that there was no way to escape what fate was in store.

“Evenin’, gent,” said Old Nog, whose face was as gnarled as a rotten turnip. He spit as he spoke and the soil sizzled from the poison therein. “You can’t pass this way until you pay the fee to Old Nog.”
“I have nothing to give,” was Jack’s reply, but Nog could see that was a lie. Jack wanted to put his hand in his pocket and feel the smoothness of the orb, but he didn’t dare. He kept his cool.

But Nog asked for something else. “Give me that fine coin purse that hangs from your shoulder.”

Jack prayed to all the gods he could name in his silent head that Twitch would keep still. The cat, thankfully, did not stir. Sleeping, I’d wager.

“Aye, that coin purse, as you say, is fine indeed,” Jack replied. “But it’s filled with nothing but scraps of food, and what care you for poor man’s food when all this forest feeds your hunger? You, sir, need something worth something. You need treasure.”

“I’ll take that coin purse, whippersnapper, if you don’t mind,” said Old Nog, and he stretched out his boney fingers like the legs of a spider, straining to stick their tips onto Jack’s bag.

“Ah, but!” cried Jack, taking a step back.

“But what?” said Nog, his rhumatic eyes narrowing.

“But what about my boots?” Jack lifted his left foot to show off the slick black leather. Even covered in the muck of the swamp, the boots looked fine as a bottle of ink.

Old Nog stared at the boots and ideas took root in his mind. He had such long legs — they would be needing a good pair of boots someday. Why not today? Nog’s own feet were bare as the rocks, colored brown by leaf and lichen. What he would look like in those fine leather things. What a stride he would make.

“Give me those boots,” said Old Nog, “and I’ll let you pass. I might even let you live, if they fit me right and don’t cause a callous.”

Jack knew this was a good deal. He took off his boots — his new boots, the ones he had just stolen not even two days ago — and gave them to the old man of the woods. Now Jack’s feet were bare as anything, and Nog walked around with the slick, fine boots on his legs — the boots looking like leeches that had crawled up the trunks of two wobbly trees.

Jack trudged off, feeling with a wince every twig and pebble. But Old Nog was satisfied and didn’t even see Jack go. Twitch never made a movement nor even a purr.

“Better to lose the boots than you, my friend,” Jack said to the cat in the bag over his shoulder, but the cat never heard. Jack spent the next hundred steps fingering the orb in his pocket, making sure it was still there.