Loric’s first sight as a man was the sun pearling through the caul that surrounded him.
For a moment he didn’t recognize where he was and struggled with the thin membrane of skin, flopping onto the forest floor like a ungainly hatching.
It was late afternoon by the look of it and the air smelled of impending rain. He took a clean lungfull and puzzled over why he felt that it had been ages since he had done so.
“OH” said Loric as he looked down at the caul. “I suppose I should eat you now. I am hungry but not really that hungry.” He bent down and tore loose a dry piece of skin. He smelled it thoughtfully and started to put it in his mouth when he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye.
Loric whirled and dropped into a crouch. He felt for the press of his kesh-blade and was relieved to find it tied with gut to his side. At first he saw nothing, only shadow, then he saw a shadow darker than the others. A moment more and he could see a man standing next to a tree dressed like no other he had ever seen.
He wore an outer piece of cloth draped over his shoulders and his legs clad in high soft boots. His right hand cradled a short staff and the left was open and held out from his body. He wore a dusky hat that covered thick curled locks. Long sleeved tunic and breeches the color of wet tree bark blended so closely to the woods around him that Loric was unsure where the man ended and the tree began. The man’s face held no menace, though what inner emotion it did reflect, Loric could not guess. Loric noticed he had hair on his face and wondered if his tribe had marked him as an outcast or whether he had never passed his Shreaving.
“You’re not going to eat that?” The stranger’s voice was deep and accented but slow enough for Loric to understand. He looked away for a moment to glance at the caul and then back to the stranger.
“I’m supposed to. Part of my song will remain in it and if an animal eats it I’ll become a shapechanger under the moon’s full face.”
“Has that happened to anyone alive, or is that just what your Histories say will happen?”
“I have no doubt in the Histories! They are the blood of my tribe and my song is strong!” Loric rose slowly to his full height and tried to look menacing. He didn’t like this stranger and knew he should not be here. “What tribe are you? And why have you interrupted my Shreaving? If you know of the Histories, then you know I am to avoid contact with anyone, the Shreaving is a test of my ability to survive on my own. Go away.”
“Do your Histories tell you to eat that goatskin by itself boy, or can you make it part of other foods?”
Loric picked up the caul and stepped back. “It’s not a goatskin, it’s my caul! If you will not leave, then I must! He turned and walked stiffly into the forest trusting his hearing to tell of any pursuit. When no sound of the stranger followed him he turned and circled back to the clearing. He searched but found no sign of anyone ever having been there except his own tracks and those of some Downlanders six days stale.
Satisfied that he had traveled far enough to avoid the stranger, Loric set about building a shelter. He wove a short length of rope stout enough to hold his weight and used it to anchor one end of a limb to a tree trunk while wedging the other in a fork high enough to discourage all but the most persistent of hunters. A roof of broad leaves from a fustian bush made a good cover from the rain which had already begun to fall in loud plops around him. He took a moment to gather some dry wood to start a fire after the shower, then climbed to the top of the trees and sang his song to the Spirit.
After that there was nothing to do but wriggle into his shelter, pushing the bundle of wood ahead of him, and wait out the storm. It was a tight fit, but it was dry and he could see the forest rolling away from him in a dense canopy of muted greens, the sun a white disk behind the clouds. There would be time to build a better shelter later, if the Spirit so desired. He thought of the stranger and what he had said about the histories, silently admonishing himself for summing up the Shreaving in such a small way. Was that really all the Shreaving was to be, a test to see if I can survive alone? The stranger had disturbed something deep within in Loric and he found it difficult to turn his thoughts to the tasks ahead.
The sun crouched low on the horizon when the rain ended and Loric emerged from his ‘home’. By now he was ravenous and he went to the limb where he had hung his caul to catch the rain water. He drank deeply and then cut a piece to chew on while he hunted.
The Histories clearly spoke of what Loric could and could not eat during his Shreaving–especially since he had not yet eaten his caul. The easiest prey being snail and tree-crab, both of which became active after rainfall, and then certain of the larger animals that fed on them.
Loric climbed from tree to tree looking for signs that a river or stream was near. He followed the lay of the land and found not just a stream but several small streams that ran together in mad confusion before falling into a gorge and out of sight.
He approached slowly,hoping to find howlers there that had caught crab or snail in the trees and brought them to the water’s edge to crack on the rocks. He stopped a short distance from the forest’s edge and listened intently. He heard the water dripping from the trees and the rub of bark and limb and the voice of the Spirit moving among the trees; sighing a song about rain and the life it brought. Then he heard the telltale clack and scrape of feeding howlers. With a smile Loric moved slowly forward, knowing that one sound out of place and the howlers would set up an alarm that would send the pack racing for the safety of the trees.
He began to weave the wood-song about him, slowly like the web of a spider, a strand at a time. I am the wind, Oh Spirit, I am the limb that speaks loudly to the leaf, nothing more. A howler would not be alarmed by the sound of a limb mumbling in the shadow of its brothers. Of course not, how silly it seems, when there are so many other things think about howler. The sun is still out the pack is feeding and there are meat-nuts to crack.
Loric kept thinking one such thought after another, never stopping the flow of thought and never stopping his progress forward. This was the first time Loric had put the wood-song to use on his own. In times before he had his grandfather to keep the cadence and flow of thought clear. He never realized how hard it had been for Oldsir to carry the theme of the song for so long. Oldsir! Loric cursed himself for the drifting thought. The howlers were sitting in a circle and the one closest to him an older female, stopped picking at the shell she had in hand and looked right at him. OH Spirit! Thought Loric furiously. I am a log. Many times you have passed me on your way to this spot she-howler. I remember your first time here after I had fallen. You carried your young one on your back. How he cried! Where is he now, She-howler?
The howler blinked and coughed once. The pack turned and became instantly alert. A young male walked out of the circle and sniffled in Loric’s direction. It seemed confused for it could not see the source of the images it heard, it could not see anything where the she-howler looked, nothing but the forest and a pile of dead wood at the forest’s edge. Loric turned his attention to the young howler. ‘You are so strong! Why do you not lead the pack? Your fur is thick and your limbs are clean and strong. Surely there is none to challenge you. You should have your choice of females.’ Loric thought as hard and sincerely as he could. The male was pacing back and forth in short tight turns. Weaving in rhythm with Loric’s thoughts. Suddenly he turned and barked at an older male. A shouting match began and the young male was chased up a tree by the leader.
**The pack-male is jealous of your son She-howler, and he is hungry. He eats too much! He will eat all the meat-nuts and you will have none. He can see the shells you have. He will take them and you will not eat. Hide them! Put the biggest ones where he can not take them. Look around, where can you put them, clever She-howler? Bring them here. Put them beneath me. I am a log. I do not eat meat-nuts. You can eat them when Pack-male is drinking. **
The howler looked back and forth from Loric to the Pack-male. She leaned forward and sat on the snails. **No. He will see them when the pack moves. You are clever She-howler, hide them under me. You can eat them and pack-male will not take them. Look! Already he has chased your son up a tree. Your son will not get any meat-nuts to eat. Pack-male is eating his nuts. He will come for your meat-nuts…what can you do She-howler? **
Loric blinked sweat out of his eyes and took a long silent breath. The she-howler looked around and walked over to Loric’ prone body. She felt under Loric’s arm with a thin, clawed hand. Her nails scraped him several times but he put the pain behind the wood-song. There is plenty of room She-howler, and I am soft and rotten. The meat-nuts will get fat and juicy here. And pack-male won’t eat them.
The She-howler put three snails in the hollow of Loric’s arm and went back to her pile of shells. She looked at the pack-male and then back to Loric. Several times she moved toward Loric and he stopped her with a strong thought about Pack-male. Now all he had to do was get the pack to move away so he could get up and stretch his protesting muscles.
It would have been easy to just get up and scare the pack away or to have killed She-howler when she was in blade-reach, but Loric knew that the Spirit was listening to his wood-song and gave it the ability to be understood by the forest. If he ended his song now, with death, it could sever the bond between his people and the Spirit of the Wood. And they would be lost.
Loric watched the pack move from tree to tree searching for more snails. They would move away and drift back. Never going too far from the forests’ edge. He continued his wood-song trying to get the she-howler to forget about the snails. But she would always come back and feel under his arm for the snails.
‘I am weak Spirit, I want to eat these snails, but I will not take them while She-howler can still claim them.
Show me a way to end the song.’
The howlers turned as one and moved in his direction, having scented him and saw him for what he really was during the short moment he was distracted. The pack-male barked a challenge and Loric hurriedly picked up the strands of the wood-song. He did not have time to try and spell the pack-male, so he concentrated on the she-howler, convincing her that the pack-male had seen her snails. She ran ahead of the male trying to beat him to Loric, but he turned instead to chase her. The respite was all Loric needed to re-affirm the illusion of a log. But the Pack-male was agitated and walked around Loric, sniffing and biting at his head. The pain was sharp and bright in his mind, but desperation drove him even deeper into the wood-song. If he flinched now the powerful male would rend him into pieces smaller than meat-nuts. The male could not decide what Loric smelled like so he marked Loric with a spray from his musk pouch, kicked a bit of dirt onto Loric’s back and then walked down the river bank. His actions made it clear to the pack that the mystery of the log was over and off limits. In a moment or two the pack would follow him to the water’s edge and they would not return to this spot. It was then that the chee’tar leapt into the clearing.
For more times than there are rings in a tree, Silsia Tolorion cursed the recklessness that made her leave the Village-beneath-the -Trees without preparations. To avoid arousing suspicion, she had taken only a few ornaments of mourning; A broadweave dyed dark with clay, a few beads made of Keshwood, and the wooden whistle Oldsir had made her.
She was supposedly only going as far as Wood’s End, so she couldn’t justify the provisions for a long-walk to Eadyie or even ask for a Keshwood knife to protect herself with. Eadyie would have sent one of the men in the village to escort her–no doubt one she wanted Silsia to dance for. The green-root she had stuffed in the bottom of her slouchbag was long gone as well as the two quomo fruit hidden away during the preparations for the next day’s Shreaving.
She took refuge in the trees and avoided the paths traveled by the larger animals, moving slowly in the direction Oldsir’s star had gone. It was also the direction that held Wood’s End, where the druid Carson Feldspar held sway over Wildwood. The thought of a single man guiding the will of a forest frightened her. Did it serve him or he serve it? What noisy deaths did it sing? How many struggled and withered while his thoughts were elsewhere? How could a person’s spirit stand against a land where everything had a voice of its own and gave heed or creedence to none?
Here in Silsia’s forest the Spirit of the Wood provided the harmony and the song that all creatures sang. It had been the rhythm and reason behind everything, and for as long as man could remember, it had fed her people and kept them safe. Nothing was asked of them, save that they also care in return. It was a circle as the priests explained it; the Spirit cared for and guided the Upstem village, and the Upstem village cared for and guided the Downland village and they as a whole cared for the forest. You sprang from the forest and lived in harmony with it and, when your song was sung, you returned to the forest.
There had been better times for the forest, and what should have been easy traveling and foraging was time-consuming and often fruitless. Her slouch-bag bulged with the fleshy heads of bread-plant; a filling if not very healthy-looking fungus that grew in the shadows of silent trees.
Silsia didn’t care for their gritty taste, and they provided little in the way of nourishment, but the alternative was even more distasteful; an empty stomach.
At least the bread-plant was proliferating, there seemed to Silisa to be more dead trees than she could remember ever seeing near the village. They were either lying across her path or leaning heavily on their brothers, no longer able to sing for themselves.
In places it was like walking in the wake of a Djervish, seeing the results of its destruction, but never the destructor. Silsia could not think of anything that happened in the season past to cause so many silent trees. The winter had been exceptionally cold, but that should not have killed the fully grown trees. Perhaps a Djervish did walk these woods. A shiver of premonition brought her suddenly back to her surroundings. She looked about and found she had almost stumbled into a devatha.
Child! she admonished herself, Stumphead! The only reason you’re alive is that it amuses the Spirit to observe your folly.
The odor of wet mould that always accompanied living devathas had alerted her when she was daydreaming. Looking closely she could see the ropey tendrils hanging from the canopy of leaves high above her. The devatha would have been easy to escape with a kesh-knife, she thought bitterly, but un-armed as she was she could not have broken free at all.
She had seen the devatha’s cruel attentions once and knew exactly what happened to anything or anyone unaware enough to come within its reach. Its victims would be bound and stung repeatedly by one tentacle while held fast with the others. Then they were drawn slowly upward to the waiting beak; a bite on the back of the neck ended any further struggling, but did not kill. The devatha left its prey hanging like quomo fruit, full of the juices it could not get from its host-tree. The death would be as slow as it would be certain.
Thinking that she would feel better with something for protection, Silsia looked around for a weapon. The keshwood is forbidden me, and I do not know the song for keening its edge anyway. But there must be something else as good, or close that I can use? I could try making a spear, but I do not have a way to shape the tip. Sighing, she picked up a limb that was not too rotted, and hefted it meaningfully.
With a new sense of awareness she moved in a wide circle around the devatha and into the lowlands beyond.
Silisa was deep into a wooded valley when it began to rain and she moved into the protection of a half-felled tree. Parting the clinging vines that covered it like a curtain, she entered the relative dryness underneath. The rain made its own random music on the trees above her and was echoed when it made it to the ground below. She folded a fusia leaf and watched as it gradually filled with water. Slowly her attention pulled close about her, and she let herself be taken away by the reflections of the beads of water. It brought her memories…memories of fire.
Her friend Yoni was looking at her from across the flames in surprise and shock. “Silisa! You don’t really mean to take one of the cauls?” “Yess!” She whispered back. Silsia felt deliciously sneaky and daring, both by shocking her friend and by doing something forbidden by man. She and Yoni had spent the whole morning peeking into Eadyie’s hut where the secret part of the Shreaving preparations were hidden from all but the Upstem priests and Eadyie, of course.
After what seemed ages of waiting within earshot of Eadyie’s hut, Silsia and Yoni slipped in when Eadyie had left with something wrapped in fur. The single large room looked the same, but for a pile of goatskin and a large black-wood bowl near the cooking fire. In the bowl was a thin material, all wrinkled and folded over on itself. It looked like the goatskin, or goat brains, but stretched impossibly thin, and coated with an oily layer that gave it the look of being fresh from the animal. Another skin was hanging from the roof, drying in the heat from the cooking fire.
Silsia reached out and touched the drying skin, it felt warm and alive to her touch, it was like the skin of a lizard, only pliant and warm. She saw her shadow dance on the pearl-like surface, and looking through it she could she Yoni’s nervous outline.
Suddenly she was moved to action and she pulled the caul from the beam and folded it into a small bundle. She tucked it into the top of her sarong, locking eyes with Yoni as if daring her to say anything. It still felt warm and alive, like a hand between her breasts, a man’s hand. With a blush at her thoughts she quickly checked outside the hut and then dashed for the riverbank, the astonished Yoni still in tow.
It was a stiffness in her neck and the gradual stopping of the rain’s patter around her that brought her back to herself this time. She smiled at the memory of Yoni’s face and unconsciously clutched the lump between her breasts. “Oh Yoni, How your eyes would widen now if you knew what I was about.” Silsia stretched out one leg and then the other and stood up, pulling free handfuls of vines as she went. It seemed to her that no time had passed at all, but she could tell by the slanting rays of the evening sun that she had spent a good long time crouched beneath that tree.
Almost at once two sounds came to her, the distant cry of a Chee’tar and the very near guttural challenge of a wood-pig. Across the small clearing she could see the outline of a creature full eight times her weight, its snout lifted to show its serrated tusks, its red-pink eyes enflamed with rage.
At first fear did not come to her and she stepped forward and said “Kom-beh, tay-chee chee hai!” The wood-pig snorted and kneaded the ground with its forepaws. The words of warding rolled over it, but it did not flee.
Wide-eyed, Silsia tried to look up at the trees and around her feet for signs that the Spirit was here. but there was no song on the wind, no constant flittering at the back of her mind. Somehow she had passed beyond the forest–her forest, and into the Wildwood.
Fear grabbed her heart and squeezed it tightly. She felt around her for the forgotten club she had picked up earlier but couldn’t find it within reach. The wood-pig took one step, then another then charged her. It held its porcine head low and emitted a high-pitched cry from deep within it like that of a woman in pain. Silsia reacted blindly and leaped backward and up onto the fallen tree. The wood-pig passed beneath it, shredding the vines like spider’s web as it shook free and turned to attack again.
Silsia ran down the path she had been following heedless of the scratches and gouges from countless branches that sought to hold her back–to slow her down enough that the wood-pig could catch her.
“Gorund de nee-cha!” She growled under her breath–”Get out of my way!” She could hear the wood-pig pursuing her but dared not spare a glance behind her. She followed the trail and it seemed to become even more close and resistant to her advance. She was slapped in the face by a thick broad leaf that blinded her long enough for her to run into a low limb. It took the breath from her, but somehow she stumbled on. “CROM VETH NORLA TOVAY!!” the path beyond seemed clear and it gave her a moment to wipe the tears from her smarting eyes. She saw a wider path ahead of her; the trees leaned away on both sides as if they feared to block the trail.
The crash of underbrush behind her spurred her down the trail before she could question it, but even with a clear trail she knew the wood-pig would catch her. Her breath was a fire and her legs jammed blades of saw-grass into her raw nerves with every step. “Spirit! “She cried out, “my song has been less than true, judge me not too harshly for I fear I am about to greet you!”
She charged blindly as sweat blurred her vision, adding a burning that she hardly noticed. Ahead of her a figure broke free of the shadows–or perhaps it was a still a shadow or even a dead tree– she couldn’t stop herself in time to tell, or even cry out.
Her headlong rush was suddenly cut short by an arm that shot out and held her fast. She doubled over and blew out a loud breath.
“Shade of the Ancient Oak!” a voice bellowed,”–a child!” Silsia tried to retort ‘I’m not a child!’ but could only gasp and mouth her words. If the man had not been holding her, she would have fallen to the ground. She tried to twist free and look at her captor but his grip was like the strongest limbs and she had no energy left to fight. Suddenly he seemed to become aware of the charge of the wood-pig towards them. He dropped Silsia without a word and held his staff over his head. Then slowly he muttered to himself and gestured at the wood-pig. The pig tripped and slid on its belly, got up and tried to charge again, but vines and roots held it down. It cried its outrage and tore at the vines with its tusks. The vines gave away, but each time it moved closer, more took their place.
“Come on child!” the man said, “We can be far away before he gets beyond my Circle of Restraint.” With that he strode into the woods with big ground-covering strides. Silsia had hardly gotten her breath when she found herself laboring to keep up.
“W-wait! Please, I’ve got to rest!”
“Sorry little one–there’s a rouge druid loose in my wood and this is no place for a girl-child to be playing.”
Silsia’s response was lost on his rapidly disappearing back. If she didn’t stay close she would lose him in the gathering dusk. So she followed doggedly and held her tounge. For now.
It was a tribute to Loric’s grandfather, and to Loric himself, that he did not jump up and try to run the moment the chee’tar arrived. It would have been the last action he would have ever made. The chee’tar took no notice of him and chased several of the howlers to the river’s edge cutting off their easy escape to the trees. Loric saw that it was the female howler and one of the young males–perhaps her own, that faced death in the form of the chee’tar.
Loric had a reluctantly clear view of the tableau. He could see the fear in the howler’s eyes, the hungry pacing of the chee’tar, its very stance implicitly announcing that it knew its prey was trapped. A deadly game of advance and retreat began as the howlers would back all the way to the water’s edge and then having no where to go would bluff and charge the chee’tar into backing up a bit. The sight would have been thought funny if Loric had not known how the dance would have to end. Caring little for getting wet, the chee’tar was only waiting for the howlers to break for the trees. He did not know a song for taming chee’tars, no one in his village had ever tried and then returned to tell about it.
A stray movement on his part could send the chee’tar running, or it could just as easily make it attack him. Loric knew that if the chee’tar didn’t make a decision soon, he would have to. The wave of energy that flooded his stomach had gone sour, bringing with it the realization that the howlers would be free if he had not been weaving his spell at them. It was his responsibilty. Finally his energy spent and he his legs trembling despite his best efforts, he decided that bluffing would at least give the howlers a chance to get away, and with the Spirit’s good will, he would make it up a tree also.
Loric waited until the chee’tar paced directly in front of him and then sprang up howling and waving his arms wildly about. The chee’tar whipped around and backed up several feet snarling and crouching on powerfull hind legs. It bellowed out a challenge and Loric stomped his feet and shouted “Hi! Go Bomcha Chee’tar! Kei Kei!” The chee’tar seemed to flinch at the words of warding but did not run. Instead it un-coiled its lenght in a long arc toward Loric’s head; claws extended and white fangs standing out stark against its ebony fur.
Loric dropped to his knees and slashed across the chee’tar’s belly as it passed over him. He felt white-hot fire pierce his skull as the chee’tar kicked down and raked his scalp. Screaming in pain and outrage it turned to attack again and saw Loric leaping for the lower branches. It leapt also, but the branch would not hold them both and they fell together in a flurry of leaves, claws and flesh. Loric slashed out at the direction of the pain and was unsure if he had struck the chee’tar or the treelimb. He was pinned to the treetrunk by a heavy limb and too stunned to even try to break free.
Blood ran into Loric’s eyes and he heard more than saw the chee’tar struggling to get free of the limb as well. It broke free, then started rolling and rubbing its flank on the ground, trying to dislodge a short length of limb impaled in its flank.
Quickly Loric wiped his eyes with a leaf and broke off a sharp stick that was jabbing his chest. He leaned to the side as far as the limb would allow, took aim and prayed to the Spirit to guide his hand. He threw in-expertly, and the stick bounced off the enraged chee’tar’s head. It forgot the pain and charged Loric again, who braced his arm against the trunk and hoped the impact would be enough to drive the blade home. There was a loud thud as the feline’s hurtling bulk hit Loric full force, and then Loric’s scream of pain joined that of the chee’tar. The kesh-blade was jerked from his grasp and the breath wheezed out of him in one loud ooff! as the limb abruptly broke free and dropped him to the ground.
The chee’tar charged into the bush blindly snapping and screaming whenever the branch in its side would snag on the undergrowth. Loric slumped and leaned against the tree, trying desperately to summon enough strength to follow the chee’tar and to force air back into his lungs. He heard the chee’tar at some distance, and by following the sound, he found the dislodged kesh-blade, and further on the piece of wood. The trail led over the side of the gorge, and at the bottom Loric found the chee’tar lying on it’s side, it’s fur matted and dark with their blood, its yellow eyes were fierce in the darkness, full of pain, full of hate.
Loric tried to get close enough to the beast to finish it off, but the chee’tar would rally at his approach, each time roaring with less ferocity. Loric decided that the chee’tar would die soon enough and wearily tried to climb a nearby tree. With his vision blurred and his footing unsure, he could only brace himself on in the crook of two lower limbs and wait for the Spirit to claim the chee’tar. He pulled some leaves to press against his throbbing wounds and was unconscious before his hand was half-way to his head.