The morning sun cast inviting shadows across the winding earthen road, which snaked its way through towering hardwoods, crystal streams, and flowering meadows. It was hardly more than a foot path by most standards, but to a remote farming community in Heveron Valley it was the only road to the great city of Avant. Infested with roots, ruts, and mud, it never saw nobility or the wealthy; even the meek avoided its use. Indeed, the only travelers to use the road were those who tilled the soil—and at that—only when necessary to take their harvest to market.
Such were the circumstances that brought Arian and his brother Talimus to that long, primitive road through Mystic's Forest. They were modestly dressed, wearing nothing more than simple loin cloths and sandals, and heavily burdened with large sacks of grain destined for the market at Avant. The two brothers were hardly an hour into their journey and already their burdens had begun to chafe and pull at their shoulders.
Arian's load was noticeably lighter than that of his younger brother; it was a privilege he had been accustomed to taking—and one that had not been graced with his brother's approval. If it were not for the difference in age and his brother's good-nature, Arian would have certainly been force to carry his fair share of grain.
Arian despised the long journey; month after month, year after year, load after load. In his hatred of the chore, he never quite considered the fact that his brother's load was always greater than his; his only concern was how he might reduce his.
"What say you, Arian... is this not the most pleasant of days?"
The beauty of the morning shown in Talimus' voice.
"Perhaps.", Arian replied flatly.
Indeed, he thought. How can one view the day as pleasant when one must ferry such a load.
The thought of hauling the grain like a beast of burden over five more hours of treacherous road etched at Arian's disposition. Anger grew in his eyes as he steamed under the weight of his load.
"Might we see the minstrel's show at city square... when our work is done and grain is sold?", Talimus asked hopefully.
He speaks of the minstrel's show, Arian thought, does he not feel the weight of his burden? What right has he to be so joyful?
Uneasiness settled over Talimus when he realized that a reply was not forthcoming.
After several more steps, Arian stopped, then lowered his sacks of grain to the ground. Talimus could see that he was angry, which did not surprise him in the least.
"Shall we rest here, brother?", Talimus asked cautiously.
"I shall speak to you, Talimus".
"Did I offend thee?"
Arian did not reply; he simply glanced into the depths of Mystic's Forest and stretched his aching muscles as he thought of how he would phrase what had to say. After some time he turned to his brother, who had not yet lowered his grain to the ground, then began his carefully planned speech.
"I have ferried many sacks of grain over this very road...many journeys and many seasons. Have I not done this for as long as you can recall?"
A look of confusion began to settle over Talimus.
"Indeed," Arian continued, "There were many times in seasons past when I ferried your grain as well as mine."
Arian nodded, "You were but young...a child. It also came to pass that, on occasion, I would ferry you, for you were young, and squalling, and stubborn...."
Arian paused to gauge his brother's reaction, "Do you not recall these things I speak of?"
Talimus shook his head in a slow, uncertain fashion, "I do not. But if you say these things are so...then...they must be so."
Arian nodded, "They are so."
He glanced into the forest as he continued, "They were troublesome journeys in troublesome times, in days past when the Mystic lived in these wilds. Despite this, I ferried you, and I ferried your grain."
He turned to his brother, "You owe me a debt, brother, for the times in seasons past when I ferried your grain as well as mine."
Talimus' confusion deepened.
"What... What would you have me do to repay this debt?"
"I ask that you repay in kind... That on this day you ferry my grain as well as yours."
Talimus looked down at the four sacks of grain lying on the ground; to add them to the five sacks he already carried was unthinkable. He looked at his brother in disbelief.
"But, Arian, my burden is already as much as I can bear—and there is yet the half-part of a day to the city. Is there not another way I can repay the debt?"
A look of disgust came over Arian, "Forget I spoke of theses things! I will forgive the debt because you are my brother."
With that, Arian reached for the sacks that were lying on the ground, but before he could raise them, he was stopped by a hand on his shoulder.
"I shall ferry them, Arian. Let it not be said that I would not repay a debt to my brother."
It had been nearly a half-hour since Arian relinquished his share of the load to his brother. A smile adorned his face as he glided effortlessly down the winding road through Mystic's forest—unhampered by the burden that his brother carried several miles back. He was, to use his own words, 'scouting ahead to ensure the road was free of danger'. The sun was bright, the air was fresh, and the forest was beautiful and inviting.
Talimus struggled with each and every step under an unreasonable load of grain. Sweat poured from his brow and his knees trembled as his feet carefully sought footing among the mud, rocks, roots, and ruts that infested the primitive road. Blood drawn from a nasty fall stained his leg and his breathing was heavy and labored. He spoke to no one in particular as he tried to reinforce his strength with his words.
"Give me strength, Great One, I beg of you."
He paused to take several heavy breaths, "I fear my load is greater than I can bear... But my brother once bore it for me and so shall I bear it for him. Give me strength, Great One, for it is my duty to repay my debt to my brother."
After several more steps, a wayward root sticking up from the mud fouled his footing and sent him falling to the ground once again. As he struggled to get out from under sacks of grain that had fallen on him, he noticed a tiny tree toad hopping off of the road. It was a curious little toad hardly much larger than a garden pea.
After clamoring out from under the grain, Talimus rose to his feet, then gathered his heavy load and continued his burdensome journey to the great city of Avant.
Arian had gained nearly an hour on his brother when he stopped to take a drink of water from a cool, clear stream, which passed near the humble road. After refreshing himself, he glanced at the inviting surroundings and thought that, perhaps he was deserving of a rest. He smiled as he spotted a cool mossy area under a towering hardwood just on the other side of the stream.
Arian crossed the stream, then found a comfortable place to lounge in the soft moss. He leaned against the tree, closed his eyes, then took a deep breath of fresh air as he listened to the gentle sounds of Mystic's Forest.
Talimus spoke the truth, he thought, this is indeed the most pleasant of days.
"To your brother you lied!"
Arian's eyes snapped open. He bolted to his feet then took several wayward steps away from the tree. He found himself standing shin-deep in the stream as he wheeled around in search of the intruder.
"Who speaks!", Arian demanded.
Arian looked about wildly, but saw no one.
"Cower not in the bushes! Show yourself!!"
"To your brother you lied!"
Arian realized that the voice was coming from the very tree that he was resting against only moments ago.
"Step from behind that tree!", Arian insisted, "Least I thrash you for the coward you are!!"
With his eyes fixed on the tree, he clenched his fist and took a more defensive posture.
"You are but a fool. I am here... at the front of the tree."
"There is no one here!", Arian insisted.
"It is I, the tree toad."
At that moment, Arian caught a glimpse of subtle movement amongst the tree's thick bark. He lowered his brow in confusion, then stepped from the stream to the tree—keeping his eyes fixed on the area of the bark where he had spotted the movement. He cautiously drew his face closer to the tree, then his mouth dropped somewhat as disbelief filled his face.
There, among the thick, coarse bark of the hardwood, was a tiny green tree toad hardly much bigger than a garden pea. Arian squinted to get a better look at the tiny creature. To his surprise it opened its mouth... then spoke.
"To your brother you lied. You never ferried his burden, nor did you ferry him."
Arian drew his head back abruptly. He took an uncertain breath, then spoke in a somewhat shaken voice.
"Are you he, the Mystic?"
"I am not. I am but a tree toad."
Arian cautiously stepped back, then briefly glanced about the forest which had suddenly taken on a less-inviting appearance.
"What days and time are these that tree toads should choose to speak?"
"To your brother you lied."
Arian stepped closer to the stream; his voice was clearly shaken, "I will not stand here to be queried by a tree toad."
Arian turned, then bolted for the road. He paused at the road just long enough to look back at the tree toad, which was far too small to see from his vantage point, then started down the road at a dead run.
Arian ran for the better part of a mile before finally reducing his pace somewhat. He continued to run at a slower stride for another quarter-mile before deciding that he had gained a safe distance between him and the strange, speaking tree toad. He slowed to a halt, then bent over as he tried to catch his breath. His side ached, his heart pounded, and sweat poured from his body.
He was convinced that the tree toad was not natural and, therefore, must be wicked or sinister in nature. He thought that it might be the old mystic or, at the very least, part of the mystic's handiwork. He look down the road behind him and wondered if he might happen across the tree toad again on successive journeys to market. He certainly hoped not.
After a sigh of relief, he turned, then started down the road to Avant. He was indeed anxious to see the end of his journey and thought that, after regaining some strength, he would heighten his pace to a trot. However, he had hardly walked more twenty yards when, suddenly, he heard that disturbing voice again.
"To your brother you lied."
Arian stopped dead in his tracks. Uneasiness crept into him as he turned toward the sound.
"You cheated your brother—you swayed him to believe a debt he owes."
After some searching, he spotted a tiny tree toad perched on the paper-white bark of Birch tree. He cautiously approached the tree toad.
"You speak like the tree toad at the stream." Arian's voice was shaken. "Do all toads in this forest speak?"
"There is but one tree toad in this forest, and I am he."
"How is it then that a tree toad should out-stride a man? I took leave of you at the stream. I ran my fastest, and I saw no toad overtake me."
"How is it that a brother should cheat a brother?", the tree toad replied.
Arian pointed an uneasy finger at the tiny creature, "You know nothing of these matters, tree toad. This affair is between my brother and I."
Arian took several cautious steps backwards, "Again I shall take leave of you. Be warned tree toad, haunt me no more, or I shall squash you as if a bug. I grow weary of your meddling."
The tree toad shifted its position to get a better look at Arian, then blinked in a slow, arrogant fashion as if to stress a point, "It is not wise to provoke a tree toad."
The tree toad's words sent chills down Arian's spine. His cautious steps led to a frantic hobble, just before he broke out in a heart-hammering sprint down the road toward Avant.
His sprint hardly lasted 50 yards when a stray root lying across the road suddenly bowed up by several inches. The root fouled his footing and sent him crashing to the jagged rocks and mud of the road. He slid for some distance across the road before coming to rest in a painful heap among the rocks and roots. He cringed in anguish for a moment or two, then lifted his head to see the tree toad sitting quietly on the road just inches from his face.
"Curse you tree toad!!!" Arian shouted.
Arian raised a fist in anger, which he brought down in full fury upon the tiny tree toad. The tree toad, however, simply moved several inches to avoid the blow. Arian made several more violent attempts to squash the tree toad, and each time the tree toad would simply move several inches to safety.
Realizing that the effort was futile, Arian clamored to his feet, then made an attempt to stomp on the tree toad. Mud flew everywhere and Arian could not determine whether or not he had hit his mark. He began stomping into the mud wildly—hoping against hope that he could rid himself of the tree toad. He spent several minutes stamping and churning the mud at his feet until he felt assured that the tree toad's tiny body must laid in a crumpled heap beneath the quagmire.
When he was finished, he paused to take several deep breaths, then turned his attention to the wounds on his chest, arms, and legs, that had resulted from the fall. He was in deep pain, and the reason became clear once he scraped the mud from his wounds. He had three long gashes across his chest which, although not life-threatening, were certainly cause for concern. There were also several sizable abrasions on his forearm, and a bruised knee that promised to stiffen his leg somewhat.
Arian let out a disgruntled sigh, then started down the road at a limp. He had traveled the road many times and knew of another stream that neared the road about a quarter-mile away. He planned to clean the mud from his wounds once he reached the stream. After that, the wounds would begin to heal and the pain would begin to subside.
"To your brother you lied."
The sound of the tree toad's voice invoked a panic in Arian. He whirled around wildly as best as his injured leg would allow in search of the tree toad.
"I have seen you and your brother on many journeys past," the voice continued, "and never have you ferried his load, or ferried him. You played his trust and cheated him."
Every time Arian turned to see where the voice was coming from it seemed to move, as if the tree toad sought to elude him. His motions became more erratic and panicked in his struggle to locate the tree toad.
"It is now you who owes the debt!"
"Show yourself tree toad!!" Arian shouted.
"Fool! I am at your shoulder."
Arian looked in horror at the diabolical creature perched on his shoulder. He screamed, then swatted at it. The tree toad jumped to his neck just before Arian's hand struck his shoulder. Each time Arian struck at the tree toad, the tiny creature jumped to another part of his body; his head, his other shoulder, back to his neck then, finally, the tree toad found a perch—just out of reach— in the middle of Arian's back.
Arian tried in vain to dislodge the tree toad; first by swatting at it, then by scraping his back against a nearby tree, which only added to his wounds. The tree toad was swift and simply moved to avoid harm, then quickly returned to the precarious position at the middle of Arian's back.
Arian realized that he could not rid himself of the tree toad in this fashion and that another strategy would have to be sought.
Arian bent over for a moment to catch his breath, "You are the Mystic's doing..." He took several labored breaths, then continued, "I know this for tree toads do not speak, nor do they haunt people unjustly."
"It is you who are unjust. To your brother you lied."
Arian stood, then started down the road at the best pace his injured leg would allow.
"You are a pest, tree toad, like a fly buzzing in my ear. I shall be rid of you at my journey's end. For you are the Mystic's doing, as such you cannot leave Mystic's Forest. At last, I shall be rid of you!"
Arian hurried down the road despite his limp—determined to rid himself of the tree toad. The tree toad simply clung to his back and refused to leave.
"You cheated your brother!", the tree toad insisted. "Go back to him now to right this wrong, least I squash you as if a bug."
"You are but a simple pest, tree toad. You can bring me no more harm."
"Fool you are!", the tree toad replied, "I can be a burden, and more!"
Arian decided to ignore the tree toad completely; his eyes were fixed on the road ahead as he concentrated on getting to the edge of the forest so many miles away.
The tree toad continued its efforts.
"You shall not leave here without bearing the load of your brother. At journey's start, you carried four sacks of grain, such as this...."
Arian's eyes widened as he felt the weight of the tree toad increase to match the weight of the four sacks of grain he had left with his brother. He staggered backward for several steps until he finally balanced the heavy, unexpected load of the tree toad.
"But you gave your brother five sacks, such as this..."
Again, Arian felt the tree toad's weight increase. He looked down the road, then, again, started for the sanctuary beyond the edge of Mystic's Forest.
"Then, you gave your brother your sacks as well as his—nine sacks in total—such as this..."
Abruptly, the tree toad's weight increased to match the entire load that Talimus had been carrying all morning. He staggered and hobbled awkwardly as the heavy load sent searing pain through his injured leg. He almost lost his balance at one point, then finally managed to stand without staggering by keeping most of the weight on his good leg.
The tree toad continued.
"One moon past, you gave your brother two sacks more than you, such as this..."
The weight of the tree toad increased to eleven sacks of grain; Arian's legs began to tremble. He took several precarious steps; the pain in his injured leg festered and stung.
"Two moons past..."
The tree toad continued citing journey after journey where Arian had unfairly given Talimus part of his share of the load, and each time the weight of the tiny tree toad increased to match it. Finally, Arian could stand no more. He staggered for several painful steps, then fell solidly on his back. He struck his head during the fall, which dazed him somewhat.
As his head cleared, Arian realized that the load was gone.
I squashed the tree toad, he thought, during the fall.
He took several deep breaths of relief, then turned his weary, aching head to the side. His eyes widened in horror as he spotted the tree toad sitting comfortably on the road next to him.
The tree toad sprang from the ground, then landed with a heavy thud squarely in Arian's chest. Arian felt the weight of many sacks of grain hammer into his chest. The impact of the tree toad knocked the wind out of him; he struggled for a breath.
The tree toad calmly resumed its lengthy lineage of unfair burdens placed on Talimus, and with each citing it would increase its weight proportionally.
Arian struggled against death for a simple breath of life-giving air, yet the weight on his chest continued to increase. He wished that he could draw one last dying breath by which to curse the tree toad, though he somehow knew that breath would not be forthcoming. The pain in his chest escalated, then his sight began to dim.
Talimus had been laboring under his load for nearly four hours. His back ached, his legs had become numb, and he wondered where he got the strength to continue on. He knew the road well and, after four hours of toil, he had hardly reached the half-way point. He was hopeful, however; the sun had dried the mud that had been plaguing his footing all morning, and most of the steep grades were behind him.
He was just about to stop for a rest when he noticed a man lying motionless on the distant road. Talimus continued trudging under his load as he squinted to get a better look; the man was on his back, though his posture was nothing like someone resting or sleeping—it more closely resembled the dead. Talimus decided to postpone his rest long enough to investigate who the unfortunate soul might be. In all the years he had carried grain over that road, he had never encountered any travelers. Indeed, the only other person he ever saw on this road was...
With one motion he dropped all nine sacks of grain to the ground, then began running with aching legs toward the downed man. As he drew closer, his worst fears were confirmed; it was indeed his brother Arian. He poured more effort into his already labored sprint.
He reached Arian's side with tears in his eyes; he was not quite sure what he should do. He set an ear to Arian's mouth and nose; there was no sign of breathing.
He shouted through tear-stained eyes, "Please, I beg of you, be not dead!"
He looked over Arian's body for any sign of attack by man or animals; there was nothing—no wounds and not so much as a mark on his body. He even rolled his brother on his side to see if a knife had found its way into his back but there was nothing—no wounds or scars. Then Talimus recalled a discussion amongst the elders about life-sounds that can be heard with an ear to the chest—sounds much like the beating of a drum.
Talimus rolled his brother on his back; it was then that he noticed a small green tree toad, hardly much bigger than garden pea perched at the center of Arian's chest. He brushed to toad aside, then placed an ear to his chest.
Talimus heard nothing for a long time. Then, faintly, he heard a sound, like the sound of a drum muffled by the distance. As he listened, the sounds grew louder and stronger. Then, suddenly, Arian's chest began to rise and heave with slow, rhythmic motions.
As Arian's eyes flickered open, he found himself looking into his brother's tear-stained eyes. In an instant he recalled the horror of the tree toad; he began struggling and shouting.
"My brother! Deliver me, I beg you! Deliver me from the tree..."
"Be still!" Talimus insisted. "I thought you dead!"
Arian settled down somewhat. After a moment or two, he raised his head and looked at his chest; there were no scars, no mud. He pushed himself to a sitting position, then reached for his knee—it was fine! Relief and joy covered his face as he looked into his brother's eyes.
"I... I am well!"
"What happened to you that you should lie on the ground as if dead?"
Arian's joy gradually changed to disgrace; he lowered his head.
"I fear, I have cheated you, brother."
Arian nodded, "I lied to you my brother. I never ferried your share of the grain in seasons past, nor did I ferry you. I played your trust to relieve myself of my share of the load." He looked up to the surrounding forest, "As such, I had to pay the Mystic's price."
"The mystic's price?"
Arian rose to his feet.
"It is now I who must repay a debt to you." Arian admitted. He looked around the immediate area as his brother stood up.
"Where is our grain?" Arian Asked.
Talimus pointed down the road, "Several paces back."
"Come", Arian said with a hand on his brother's shoulder, "I shall ferry the load for the last part of the journey."
"You cannot," Talimus insisted, "You are ill."
"I am well. It is you who is labored and in need of rest. I shall ferry the load, and we shall speak of things on the way, things like mystics and tree toads."
"And I shall promise you this; when our journey is done and our grain is sold, we shall indeed see the minstrel's show at city square."
The two brothers continued their journey on the road to the great city of Avant—unaware that they were under the watchful eye of a tree toad perched high in a neighboring tree. Arian carried the heavy sacks of grain for the remainder of the journey and, with a measure of humility, told his brother a lengthy tale about the road, the load, and the tree toad.