Authors: Barbara Campbell
He learned that there were times that were dark and times that were not-so-dark, but even in the not-so-dark times, there was no sun or wind or snow. He learned there were many men and that they were as varied as the leaves of the trees: some small, some large, some broad, some slender. Strangest of all, he learned that he was no longer rooted to the earth, that he could will himself to move, not simply rely on the men to move him.
With that knowing came another that made the inner tattoo beat very fast. Instead of many limbs, he now had only five. Two longer ones grew out of his upper trunk. Two others, longer still, grew from his lower trunk. One, small and limp, grew from his center. All were pale and soft.
The awareness horrified him so he shut out the sight of the not-forest and the men and his own pitiful, pale form. Then he could remember birds and beasts, wind and rain, sun and moon and stars, and everywhere, trees.
He could not shut out the not-forest for very long or the needs of his new form. He learned to move about the small, dark place using the lower limbs, which trembled and folded beneath him until he managed to control them. He learned to cover his limbs with the skins of dead animals to keep out the cold. He learned to scoop up the not-water with a turtle shell. And always, he watched the men who watched him.
Each time he moved, the Dark-Fur’s body tensed like a stalking wolf’s. The Dark-Fur did not seem to understand how strange and terrifying and enthralling his new form was to him. When he rolled the thick not-water around his mouth, savoring its lumps, the two wings above the Dark-Fur’s eyes drew together. When he explored the ridges and hollows of his face with his claws, the Dark-Fur’s voice rumbled like distant thunder. When he rubbed the small limb in his center and made it stand upright, the Dark-Fur’s face turned as red as a crab apple; even after he stopped rubbing, the Dark-Fur continued to shake him, snarling loudly all the while.
When the Dark-Fur left, the One-Eye would come, or the Fox-Fur, or the small White-Fur with the gentle hands and a face as wrinkled as a dried rowanberry. Often, the One-Eye grasped his face gently and closed his eye. He would feel an odd tingling, like and unlike the energy that flowed among the trees in the forest. When the robin-egg eye finally popped open, the One-Eye shook his head, more grooves sprouting on his face.
Once, the One-Eye brought three other men into the den. They burned dry weeds and rattled turtle shells while the One-Eye held up a little round rock that sparkled as if it held the sun. The One-Eye moved it round and round him until his head ached from watching. Then the One-Eye held the sunstone in his hand, closed his eye, and rocked back and forth on his haunches until he fell over in a heap. He lay there a long while, twitching like a sleeping wolf. When he awoke, he shook his head and all of their faces became deeply grooved.
They always went away when the Dark-Fur returned. The Dark-Fur poked a stick through the dead animals and birds he had brought and laid them over the fire. He did not like to eat the dead creatures, but if he refused, the hollowness came back and the Dark-Fur would snarl. He would finish the eating quickly so he could lie beneath the skins, and close his eyes, and try to recall what had happened to bring him to this place.
“Why is he like this?”
Struath turned away. He disliked having Darak loom over him.
“He’s getting better,” Mother Netal said. “He responds when you call him now.”
“So does a dog.” After a long silence, Darak spoke again, his voice flat. “He’s going to be like Pol, isn’t he?”
“Nay, lad. Pol’s addled because he was kicked in the head by the ram.”
“Then what is it?” Darak rounded on him again. “Is he possessed by a demon?”
Struath shook his head.
“Folk who’ve had a great shock react in different ways,” Mother Netal said. “Old Sim who swore he saw a portal to Chaos open—his hair turned white overnight and him only four and twenty summers then. Ania has neither moved nor spoken since the bear mauled her. Sometimes, a person’s spirit shatters and the fragments flee to the Forever Isles.”
“But Struath can find them.” The pleading in Darak’s eyes belied the challenge in his voice. “Can’t you?”
Struath straightened to his full height, but he still had to look up at Darak. “I can.”
He had touched Tinnean’s spirit many times—at his birth, after his vision quest, before he took the boy on as an apprentice. If Tinnean’s spirit had shattered, he would have recognized the fragments left behind. This spirit felt confused, lost, and utterly unfamiliar. To reveal that would only lead to more questions, and he refused to allow Darak to bully an admission of ignorance from him.
He was Tree-Father. He must continue to seek the answers to this mystery. But how would he find them when his visions had deserted him?
HE DARK-FUR was called “Darak” and the One-Eye “Struath.” Little White-Fur was “Mother Netal” and Fox-Fur was “Griane.” They were females. Like wolves, they were smaller than the males, but equally fierce.
They all nodded and curled up their mouths when he called them by their not-fur names. Because it seemed to please them, he made an effort to learn the names for the other things in their world, even when the names confused him. The not-water container was called “bowl” although it was clearly a hollow stone. “Pot” was the larger stone container that sat in the fire. “Pot” contained different not-waters, sometimes “porridge,” sometimes “stew,” sometimes “brose,” which was watery porridge, and sometimes “soup,” which was watery stew. His favorite not-water was the “hot apple cider” Griane brought in a large pouch named—oddly—“waterskin.”
He learned the names of things like “shoes” and “cup” and “bed.” He learned the names of not-things like “please” and “thank-you” and “hello” and “goodbye.” But he did not know how to ask them why he was here or how he could return to the forest.
Then Griane took him outside the den. The wind stung and the brightness of the sun made his eyes leak water, but it was very good to be out of the darkness and to know that their world was not so different from his.
He saw many small dens like Darak’s. He saw very small men playing with small wolves and a herd of curly-furred not-deer called “sheep.” Then he saw the line of willows and alders, and beyond them, on the rising slope of a hill, the Oak.
He ran, zigzagging like a mouse through the clusters of men. He heard Griane shout his not-name, but he ran on, his tattoo beating very fast. He reached the trees and splashed across the stream, slipping once on the wet rocks, patting the branches of the willows and the alders, but not stopping, not even for them, until he reached the Oak.
It was smaller than he remembered, but if he should now wear the form of a man, then it might have shriveled into this slender being. If he had been transported to this place, perhaps the Oak had as well. None of that mattered as long as they were together.
Breathless, he stood before the Oak, fog rising from his mouth in great clouds. He touched its trunk with one careful finger and felt nothing. He laid both hands on the tree. This time, it roused to his touch. He closed his eyes, sending his energy to the tree. He poured out his confusion and begged it to tell him why he was here. He stood there until the cold stole the feeling from his fingers and Griane’s urgent tug on his arm could no longer be ignored.
The oak had recognized him, waking from its winter drowsiness to hum quietly beneath his fingers. But it was simply a tree, content to doze until spring awakened it. It was not the Oak.
Griane turned him away. His gaze swept across his new world. The heart tattoo thudded wildly. Beyond the stream and the dens and the snow-covered expanses called “fields,” he saw the dark silhouettes of countless trees. He tugged free of Griane’s hand. Once again, he ran.
Darak loosened the snare and removed the rabbit. Too weak to struggle, the quivering animal stared up at him, its dark eyes wide with fear and hopelessness. Instead of breaking its neck, the sinew had looped around one foreleg, nearly severing it. Judging from the spots of blood staining the snow, the creature had hung here only a short while, but the hunter in him abhorred the messiness of the kill.
He bowed his head. “Little brother, I thank you for giving your life for us. And I ask your forgiveness for the suffering I have caused you.” With a quick twist of his hands, he snapped the rabbit’s neck.
He spread the limp body on a clean patch of snow, carefully facing the animal west so that its spirit might race after the sun. He hoped the cruelly maimed foreleg would not hinder its progress. When he heard a rustling in the grasses, he knew the rabbit’s spirit had accepted his apology and begun its journey to the afterworld. Crumbling a bit of oatcake over the snow in thanks for the kill, he rose and bent the sapling down to reset his snare.
Even with his eyes focused on his work, he could feel the forest. The silent trees watching him with their never-sleeping awareness, trunks shimmering with otherworldly power, naked branches creaking as they reached out to drag him from the open field into the gloom of the tangled undergrowth… .
Despite himself, he glanced up, then scowled. The trunks of the closest trees glowed with the ruddy light of the late afternoon sun and the branches rattled only through the power of the wind. It was the strain of dealing with Tinnean’s condition that was making him so jumpy.
He was glad now that he’d obeyed the irascible old healer. Mother Netal and Struath both promised to watch over Tinnean; Griane swore that if their duties took them elsewhere, she would remain with him. He’d found her assurances less comforting than Mother Netal’s, but he could not neglect his responsibilities forever; everyone—even the children—helped provide food for the village. And now—like the children—his pride had reduced him to setting snares in the fields and along the lakeshore.
He was the best hunter in the tribe. No one knew the forest paths as well, none possessed his skill with the bow. He had been fifteen when he earned the hunter’s tattoo, younger even than his father, the only other man in living memory to bring down a stag with one arrow to the heart. He’d been so proud of besting his father that he had scarcely noticed the pain when Struath pierced his skin with the bone needle and created the antler tattoo that branched across his right wrist.