The story began in a city that was not very large, yet not small in the slightest either. Its name was Shmur. It was there that the Sharmuziks settled. They founded their city ages ago, perhaps even much earlier than that.
It is rather difficult to describe their external appearance. They are of short stature, fluffy like cats, minus the whiskers, somewhat like bears, or rather cubs. They have large rounded ears, like those of mice; but in contrast to them, they do not have long tails, or any other kind of tail for that matter. As for the city itself, it is much more difficult to describe. And yet…
Imagine a field carpeted with lush grass and various multi-coloured flowers. If one sat on the ground, warmed by the sun’s rays, it was possible to see in the distance a mountain range rising up to the very sky. And quite nearby, a meandering river flowing between the hills, irrigating the land, and leading to a small city. The city was surrounded by fields of golden spikelets of sungrass. Industrious farmers worked adroitly in the fields from the crack of dawn. And once one reached the very heart of the city, its main square, it was impossible to miss the mighty Sturdy Tree right at its centre, in whose cool shade sat one of the elders. This was the grey and wise Sharmuzik who told cautionary tales to younger generations. Everyone, down to the city’s smallest inhabitants, always hung on his words.
As one stood on the main square, it was difficult to miss the thin smoke rising from behind the houses. To find out where it was coming from, all one had to do was walk a little further along the road, past the Town Hall, behind which stood a two-story brick building with a green roof. That was the Shmurite Bakery. It was from its oven that smoke continuously drifted upwards. At that very moment, its door opened, and one of the townspeople emerged with a fresh loaf of bread. Peeping inside, one would find Barti, the talented baker, hard at work, sliding dough into the oven. The shelves held many different buns and rolls, both sweet and savoury. There was also a big cake with a ribbon of red icing placed on a wooden stand, as if on a pedestal, patiently awaiting the moment it would be placed on the festive table as the centrepiece delight.
The morning sun, whose rays were coming through the window, made all the bread on the shelves shine like pure gold. Every passer-by could not help but stop, even if for a moment, to take a look at actual works of pastry art.
If one came out of the bakery into the street, they would see the newspaper building where Archi the local correspondent worked. He issued his weekly The Shmurite Herald, in which he actively criticised the mayor’s work, as well as reported the latest news of the week. Further on, not far from the river, there was a workshop that was known all over town. The two talented brothers Lumi and Renchi worked there. They could build or repair anything with no trouble.
Once one left the workshop and crossed the small bridge to the other bank of the river, one could visit the library housing a collection of all kinds of books, from old ones with worn covers to recent works in new covers, with fictional stories and real scientific studies. Speaking of research, the observatory nearby where Habl worked is worth mentioning. Every night he observed the stars through a telescope, which was built by the aforementioned talented masters. Habl studied the neighbouring planet and dreamt of one day visiting it and meeting its inhabitants…
There were many interesting places in Shmur. For example, the herbalist’s house, where decoctions that could cure of any disease were prepared. A fish market with auctions, where fish was sold to the highest bidder due to a shortage of fish. And the Shmur Market, where one could find fresh fruits and vegetables, which, on the other hand, were plentiful.
That was how Shmur looked like. A city that was not very large, yet not small in the slightest either. The Sharmuziks almost never went beyond its bounds. There were a few things that terrified them. They were afraid of heights, darkness and rain. But most of all, they were afraid of going beyond the Great Glade. Thus it was in the past, thus it is today… will it remain so forever?
That evening, like every other evening, Nolton made himself a cup of tea with a side of strawberry jam, sat down in his favourite armchair and picked the book that was on the table next to him. But after glancing at it, he remembered that he had already read it the evening before. The Sharmuzik got up and walked to a shelf. He placed the book there, and began looking for another one, one that he had not yet read. Having checked all the shelves, several boxes, the cabinet and even under his bed, the Sharmuzik could not find a single new book for his evening read. Returning to the living room, he saw the cup of tea he had brewed for himself with steam rising from it. Scratching his head, he walked up to the window, pondering where he would be able to find a new book before the tea completely cooled down. On the other bank, beyond the river, which divided the city into two parts, one could see from Nolton’s house the building housing the library. Nolton noticed that the lights were still on in its windows and it immediately dawned on him. He ran out into the street, throwing on his coat and scarf in haste. He dashed across the bridge and, once outside the library, he pulled its rather large and heavy door. As he walked into the building, Nolton immediately headed towards the nearest shelf and started to look for a new book. Thus, the city library had by far more books than one could find at home. But Nolton liked certain types of books, about adventures and expeditions. Moving through several shelves, he came to the one in the furthermost corner. Finally, the Sharmuzik found what he had come for. The whole shelf had adventure books. Nolton decided not to waste time and picked the one closest to him. He was about to go back home but he suddenly stopped. His attention was drawn to a notebook that was just behind the book he had picked. Taking out the notebook, Nolton examined it up close. The notebook was bound in brown leather and closed with a silver buckle that had the initials KF inscribed. On its first page, the Sharmuzik saw a neatly hand-written epigraph: “My diary, or chronicles of a faraway journey”. Flipping to the next page, Nolton saw the map of the Great Glade tucked inside the notebook. The Sharmuzik unfolded it fully. He was genuinely taken aback by the image he saw on the map. This turned an ordinary evening into the beginning of a new story. Leaving the book for which he had left his tea, the Sharmuzik quickly put the map back inside the notebook and ran back to his house with it in his hand.
Once at home, Nolton sat down at his desk right away and directed his lamp so that it fully illuminated the map. This was a map larger than any the Sharmuzik had seen before. Its paper had yellowed of old age. The mysterious things that were depicted on it gave rise to many interesting questions. Certain inscriptions that could have at least provided some answers could not be made out. As if it was not enough that the map was in poor shape, a large portion of it was torn out. The only thing that could be made out was several houses with an inscription above them: Shmur. A dotted line ran from the city’s name to a completely different city. To better examine the inscription, Nolton took out a special device, similar to a stick with magnifying glasses of different sizes attached to it. This allowed him to make out the almost illegible inscription above the city: T u l u n.
A light breeze drifted through the half-open window, occasionally flipping the pages in the open notebook. The warm rays of the morning sun enveloped Nolton who was sound asleep, sitting at the desk. And so, the hands of the small clock on the stool pointed to nine o’clock. There was half a sun on the clock dial instead of numbers. It started to ring loudly and persistently, and immediately woke Nolton, who, having been carried away by reading the diary, had fallen asleep at his desk. The sleepy Sharmuzik reached for the clock, trying to turn it off. But he could not reach it and fell to the floor along with the chair. The ringing clock was joined in by another ring, this time at the door, announcing the arrival of visitors. Without waiting for the master of the house, the visitors politely knocked on the door, opened it themselves and came inside. There was clapping and celebratory whistles. There were Lumi, Renchi and Archi at the door with wooden boxes of different shapes with colourful ribbons, while Barti was holding a birthday cake, which also boasted a red ribbon made of icing.
“Where’s Nolton? Did we get the day wrong?” asked Barti, not seeing the master of the house.
Nolton got up and looked at his friends. At the same moment, he remembered one very important thing: today was his birthday.
Actually, the Sharmuziks did not have a calendar. And, at first glance, it was difficult, even impossible, to understand when exactly a birthday should be celebrated. But in reality, things were much simpler for the residents of Shmur. They simply agreed among themselves on when the birthday of one of their friends should be celebrated. The main thing was that it should happen in the season – say summer or winter – during which the Sharmuzik in question was born. Moreover, they had a special tradition. Sharmuziks never bought presents for birthdays; they made them themselves. Thus, those who had friends who made valuable jewellery were most lucky.
Usually Nolton would lay a festive table and would have a great time with his friends. But this time was different from all the other times. Having asked his friends over to a table on which instead of food lay a map and a notebook, Nolton recounted the events of the evening before. While Lumi and Renchi listened attentively, and Archi jotted down something in his notebook, Barti decided to feast by himself on the cake that he himself had baked.
“And then, when I started reading this diary, in addition to the map, I found strange drawings,” said Nolton and turned over a few pages of the diary – on one there was a hand-drawn figure of sorts… the image of a creature.
“Lumi, look! The figure in the drawing is just like the one we found used as a bookmark in one of the books, “Renchi said’. “By the way, if I’m not mistaken, that drawing is still in my pocket,” continued Renchi, taking out of his right pocket a half-torn drawing of a lamp on legs.
“And now bring it up to here,” said Nolton, turning the page and pointing to the place with the remains of a torn page. The Sharmuziks placed the drawing in the right place in the diary and realized that these parts completed each other.
“Incredible. But whose diary is this? And why are you so sure that this map is real?” asked Archi, even putting his notebook aside in surprise.
“Unfortunately, I do not know whose it is, and I can’t be sure of the authenticity of this map. I’ve never been beyond the Great Glade, just as you.”
“That’s a shame that we’ll never know what’s there in reality. In order to do that, we’ll have to leave the city and embark on a long journey. To unknown lands, where unknown creatures live,” Archi said musingly.
Following these words Lumi, Renchi and Nolton exchanged glances and then looked at Barti, who was calmly carrying the last piece of cake to his mouth. Noticing the gaze of his friends, Barti froze with the spoon in his hand.
“What? That is… You seriously want to go to…”
“Yes, indeed! We’ll go on a journey and see for ourselves what lies beyond the Great Glade. Good idea, Barti!” said Nolton.
“No, I’m not…”
“Well then… in that case, we’ll have to go to the workshop to prepare everything we need for the road,” said Lumi rising from the table and heading with Renchi towards the front door.
“Hold on, what about…”
“I’ll go back to the office and grab reams of blank paper, after all we’re bound to come across many interesting things along the way,” said Archi and headed towards the front door too.
“But what I wanted to say is…”
“Yes, definitely, Barti, we’ll certainly need food supplies for the road, take as many cans of nuts and drinking water as possible,” Nolton said leading him to the exit. “I’ll be expecting you after lunch!” he said to his friends and closed the door after them, right in front of Barti’s nose, who remained standing there in front of the house looking perplexed.
As if under a spell, Barti stared at the shut door. A terrible picture emerged in his head: an unknown, dreadful dark forest where his friends were heading. And who knew what dangers lay in wait for them in the dark, around every corner? At that moment, there was one thing Barti was sure of: if his friends really embarked on this trip, he would not go along with them for anything in the world. Thus, if one was to find the most easily frightened Sharmuzik among all the inhabitants of Shmur, who was afraid of his own shadow, then without a doubt, it would be Barti, hands down.
The Sharmuziks loved to undertake important matters exclusively on a full stomach. That was why, after enjoying a hearty lunch, Nolton put on his travel outfit, packed his telescope in his backpack, the diary and the map. He flung it on his back, came out into the front yard and was about to close the door when he suddenly stopped and went back into the house. He returned with a small wooden plate and hung it on the doorknob. The plate read: “I’m off on an expedition. Don’t know when I’ll be back.” And so, locking the door and putting the key in his pocket, Nolton sat on a bench and waited for his friends. After some time, Archi came to the house with a crossbody bag with sheets of paper sticking out of it.
“Where’s everyone? They’re not here yet?” Archi asked, surprised.
“Not yet,” said Nolton.
After getting a response, Archi sat next to Nolton and took out of his bag a blank sheet of paper and a small case from his pocket. This was where he kept his golden pen, which was presented to him as the best correspondent in Shmur. Archi began jotting down on the blank paper. Nolton, who was sitting next to him, with his usual curiosity, decided to take a look at what exactly his friend was writing. There were already a few sentences on the paper: “The story began in a city that was not very large, yet not small in the slightest either…”
“Ahem,” Barti, who had just come up to the house, cleared his throat.
“Ah, there you are, Barti. Good that you came. We’re still waiting for Lumi and Renchi before we can leave,” said Nolton.
“Yes, but I…” Barti wanted to say something again.
“And there they are, it seems that we won’t have to go on foot. Look!” Archi interrupted, noticing a large car on four legs making its way in the direction of Nolton’s house and in the cabin of which were sitting Lumi and Renchi. It was the Stilt, one of the inventions of the talented masters. The Sharmuziks used it to pick the fruits of very tall trees. Depending on the tree, the legs of this machine could be shortened or extended. When the Stilt approached the group, its cabin began to slowly descend to the ground, until the Sharmuziks were able to enter it using the steps. Nolton and Archi dexterously climbed into the Stilt’s cabin, while Barti remained standing on the ground.
“Barti, are you going to just stand there?” asked Archi looking out of the cabin.
“I’m… just… I…” Barti tried to say something.
“Hurry up, it’s time to make a move,” said Archi and returned to his seat.
Barti was very afraid of heights. To reach the cabin, which was a few metres off the ground, he had to climb a rope ladder, which was swinging in all directions to make things worse. Trying to overcome his fear, the Sharmuzik grabbed the ladder and started to move up one step at a time. So as not to look down, he simply shut his eyes, and this really helped. In a minute, Barti had finally reached the cabin and sat in one of the seats, catching his breath. The cabin slightly lifted above the ground, and the Stilt began to walk towards the exit from Shmur.
The Sharmuziks were moving along a familiar road. It was the way to the river. All around hung ripe wild berries, three times bigger than a Sharmuzik. It was not the first time that Lumi and Renchi were visiting this place in their machine. They often came to these berry bushes to restock their reserves of the flavourful juice, which they later used to make jam, one of the favourite delicacies of the inhabitants of Shmur. Further on, passing the bushes, the Sharmuziks reached boundless green meadows, where low grass was growing everywhere and lone trees were few and far between. This was the Great Glade.
For a while, the Sharmuziks travelled through familiar places. Slowly and measuredly, the Stilt walked confidently along the path. It was so slow that the Sharmuziks even got hungry again and had to make a stop under one of the lone trees. They gladly ate a bowl of warm soup that Barti prepared with juicy mushrooms on an open fire. And it was no surprise, as the vapour drifting from the cauldron smelled exceptionally mouth-wateringly delicious. After having a good meal, the members of the expedition hit the road again. The sun was already setting beyond the horizon when finally, after a long journey through green meadows, the burbling of the river separating the Great Glade from unknown lands reached them. It was much wider than the one flowing through Shmur and had a more rapid current. The Sharmuziks did not attach much importance to inventing names for rivers. Probably because they only knew of two of the many that existed around the world.
When the Stilt approached the river, Renchi stopped the machine and looked at Lumi, as if silently asking: What do we do next? Lumi nodded, after which Renchi took hold of the lever and pushed it forward. Entering the river, the Stilt slowly moved to the opposite bank. It seemed as if the metal legs had to make a lot effort to take every step. But, despite the strong current, the machine successfully crossed the river. All that was left to do was overcome the steep ascent. Suddenly, out of nowhere, it began to rain heavily. The Sharmuziks had noted dark clouds looming over their heads when they were crossing the river, and the clouds eventually covered the entire sky. It was raining dogs and cats and the rain instantly washed away the sand on which the Stilt was trying to climb. Its feet sunk in the mud. Finally the machine completely toppled over and was slowly sliding into the river. Realising that there was nothing they could do, the Sharmuziks began to run ashore quickly. And as soon as everyone had left the machine, the Stilt fell into the river in an instant. Since the machine was built with incredibly light metal, it was immediately picked up by the strong current and carried away into the unknown with all the food supplies.
The rain turned into a violent storm. The sky was menacingly dark because of all the thick clouds. The wind picked up the leaves and twigs, tossing them around. It seemed as if all of nature was angry at the Sharmuziks for crossing the river and turning up on foreign land. Suddenly, quite close, a bolt of lightning struck and thunder rumbled incredibly loudly, as if throwing off balance the earth itself. The Sharmuziks, who had hidden from the rain under the crown of a small dense tree, immediately dashed into the thick of the forest, trying to escape what had completely surrounded them from every side: nature.
Without looking back, the Sharmuziks rushed ever farther from the river, as if trying to get away from a dangerous predator that was about to catch up with them. Tired from such a long run, they stopped under the large leaf of a plant. The rain practically did not get to them through the dense crown of the trees, which, like a shield, were taking the full blow of the bad weather. Fumbling for a biscuit in one of his pockets, Lumi decided to share with the others and, breaking off a small piece for himself, he passed it on to the others to do the same. Taking turns, one after the other, the Sharmuziks were breaking off their share of the biscuit. And so, when Archi got a small piece, being not that hungry, he decided to give it to Barti, who constantly suffered from hunger.
“Here you go, Barti, I can’t… Barti?”
Realising that among those present, the Shmurite baker was missing, the Sharmuziks began to call out for their buddy, but they got nothing in response but the howling of the wind. Night was falling, and through the darkness, it was quite difficult to make out anything that might have resembled Barti. To find their friend, the Sharmuziks decided to come out of their dry and calm place under the leaf and go out in search of him. The forest, which was more like an impenetrable jungle, seemed even more terrifying because of all the sounds that were reaching them from every direction. Overcoming their fear, the Sharmuziks decided not to abandon their idea and began to move forward uncertainly.