A Fork in the Road

“A Fork in the Road” by Brie Barbee

The tinker wiped his palm across his forehead and rubbed the excess moisture on his dust-covered breeches. He leaned forward to pat the rump of his horse reassuringly. It looked back at him, straining. The poor thing was more exhausted than he was.

He felt bad for the creature, but knew they had to keep pushing forward. This would likely be the last time they could make it up this stretch of the Queen’s Road before heavy snowfall prevented further travel.

The leaves on the trees were already a deep mustard color. In just a few more weeks they’d be covered in frost. If the tinker hoped to make enough money to last him through the winter, he had to get it now.

His body wasn’t what it used to be and he was finding it harder to sell his wares. He didn’t like to think about what it would mean if he were no longer able to travel.

The old man squinted at a road marker in the distance, but couldn’t read what it said. As the cart drew nearer, a wave of relief rushed over him as he realized the reason he couldn’t read it was because the sign wasn’t written in the common tongue. The tinker looked down at the crudely drawn message in fascination.

In all the times he’d travelled this way, he’d never seen this sign. Which was odd, because it didn’t look particularly new. He knew the village of Mill’s End lay somewhere to the east, but what was in the other direction?

He peered down the path until it bent in the undergrowth. Fresh leaves almost completely covered the path; it looked like no one had travelled this way in quite some time.

A pessimistic part of him considered this might be the last time he’d pass through here. He had to know what was down the other path. He urged his stead on, despite its protests.

Apart from the thick layer of bronze leaves covering the ground, the path looked nearly identical to the one he’d been traveling on before. That is, until quite suddenly, he rounded a bend and found himself at the entrance to a sprawling field.

The tinker’s jaw dropped. Spread out over an acre were tents and stalls of all sizes and colors. Vendors were selling goods like handmade pottery and fruits: pineapples and blackberries, ruby red currants and dark yellow lemons, apples and quinces nearly the size of the man’s head. He had never seen such variety of fruit all together in one season.

Overcome by the wealth of offerings in the strange market, the tinker almost didn’t realize the most unusual part of all, the merchants themselves. Like a fairy tale come to life, tiny green men and women were shouting out over the crowd, hawking wares. A small child with an upturned nose like a pig approached the tinker and pointed to the lantern at his feet, his tiny hand full of gold coins.

The tinker reached out and took the coins from the boy in exchange for the lantern. He ran off snorting in delight. The tinker’s horse no longer seemed tired and continued to pull the cart forward as if in some kind of trance.

Eventually the road became too crowded and the cart was stuck. The old tinker hopped down into the sea of green people, no one bigger than an adolescent human. More approached him and pointed to various items in his wagon: wrapped soaps, tinctures, coffee, and lard.

Many offered the same gold coins the child had, which the tinker eagerly accepted. Others offered him fruit, but he waved them away. His mother had always told him never to eat magical food, because it would make non-magical people go mad. She’d never said anything about magical gold, though.

There seemed to be no end to the wave of strange people, until the tinker realized he had nothing left to sell. The sun had already set over the trees, the light quickly fading from the field. The other merchants packed up their stalls with startling efficiency and waved to one another as they parted ways.

With both his pockets overflowing with coins, the tinker headed back to the main road. He still wasn’t sure what had just happened, but he was smiling, because he knew he would never have to worry about money ever again.

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