The Abandoned Path

My response to Tammy Drabble Cue #38 "The Road less Traveled"

Disclaimer: The characters all belong to Tamora Pierce.

Ma told me it was good to take the road less traveled, but she never said anything about the road not traveled at all, Saralyn thought as she flew low over the country side. She was helping to scout a new road cross-country through a hazardous section of Tortall. There was so much quicksand through the swamp-like terrain that not just any path would do. Supposedly, there was an old riders trail here that would be plowed and cleared with magic, assuming she could spot it. In the hopes of finding her place among the many faces of Tortall, Saralyn had volunteered.

Her da had been even less thrilled about this idea than her ma. Da had made her promise not to actually do any walking; after all, quicksand swallowed animals of all sizes, and her magic was not the type to pull her out. He's smart, but even Da doesn't know everything. There was no way she was going to find the path unless she actually got down low. Any path was long since grown over.

Sarralyn dropped to the ground, shifted to a coyote, and began to search with her long snout. She hoped she'd smell danger before she stumbled into it, but she'd only taken three or four steps when she suddenly realized with horror that she was sinking.

Initially she tried to back up or scramble her way out. If there were edges, she couldn't find them. And the more she moved, the quicker she seemed to go under, until she was stretching her neck desperately to keep her coyote snout out of the water. Almost without thinking she changed shape, shifting to a giraffe. Now her head was well above the surface, but the weight of the larger body was pulled quicker to the swampy bottom.

Why didn't I listen to Da? she wondered helplessly. She stretched her long neck toward the nearest branch. She couldn't quite reach. She stuck her tongue out, wrapping it around the branch and pulling it to her mouth, then clamping down with her jaws. Sarralynn morphed smoothly to a snake, while her mouth still held the branch. The transformation traveled from her head down, luckily leaving her above the surface of the quicksand. She flicked her tail toward the trunk of the tree and dropped. Then she landed in human form, naked, and strangely comforted by the sharp pain of bark against flesh.

Turning her head, Sarralyn spied an old, overgrown path. She'd found it. She looked back with dismay at the quicksand. The path was far too close, and it seemed to her that they dare not build a road where the terrain had changed so much. She rested a few more minutes, trying to shake off the feeling of panic that had shot through her heart while she was sinking in quicksand. Eventually, Sarralyn shifted back to a hawk and took flight, winging her way back to the King's Own outpost where the royal mages were awaiting her report. They weren't going to be happy, but sometimes a trail was abandoned for a reason.