If The World Should End

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: June 10, 2019

Reads: 51

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Submitted: June 10, 2019

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Trodwen did not want to go out again tonight.  The wind was colder than it should have been at this, the three quarter Turn of the Mark, and it would bite cruelly through his snakeskin cloak.  He knew this because he had just come home through a freezing downpour, and the wind had buffeted him every step of the way.  His boots, also tanned snakeskin, and thus supposed to be waterproof, were soaked clear through to his toes.  His hair and long beard dripped icy puddles on to the clean floor.  The very thought of wading out again into such wicked weather made him shiver.

But it had to be done.  On his return from meeting with the other Mages and Guild Masters, Hani, his wife, had informed him that Merwyn and Jatoc's youngest had Dreamed.  Not a happy Dream.  As a Mage, and the oldest member of New Dawn Guild, it was Trodwen's duty to verify the Dream and to help the family with the decisions they would have to make.  No time to even discuss with Hani the disturbing findings of the Council.

No help for it, then.  Trodwen snugged the last walnut toggle on his cloak closed, pulled his soggy hat down over the still-red tips of his ears and squelched to the door of the little house under the big oak.  At least he wouldn't have to walk.  Hani, bless her, had persuaded a large grey squirrel to carry him.

It was full dark, with no stars to guide them, so Trodwen carried a candle lantern made from a brathelm gourd with a coiled greasevine wick.  He mounted the squirrel, scrunching his robe up almost to mid-waist in order to be able to seat himself firmly on the squirrel's short back, gripping its wet furry hide with his bare legs.  Hani tossed him two acorns, which he placed in the pouch hanging at his side.  Trodwen concentrated on sending a picture of the way to their destination from his mind to the squirrel's, taking care to show it the shortest route.  At a further nudge from him, they were off, the squirrel's bushy tail erect in the air, it's paws pushing down into the wet muck of the path, jarring Trodwen with every leap.

At the door of Jatoc and Merwyn's hollow log house, Trodwen thanked the squirrel with a nut, prodding him gently with a suggestion to return at dayrise and take him home again.

Inside, things were worse than he'd feared.  Across a hard packed dirt floor scattered with tree bark mats, Merwyn was slumped over an oak log table, head cupped in her hands, crying.  Jatoc sat across from her, thin lips pressed so tightly together that they almost disappeared.  To anyone not knowing him, Jatoc looked fierce, black brows almost meeting in the middle of his frown.  To Trodwen, who had called the man friend for almost more Turns than he could count, it looked as if Jatoc was only just holding it together for the sake of his wife.  Jatoc looked as if he, to, wanted to sob.  The house, usually bright with the light of  gleemers and full of the echoes of joyous laughter, was, this night, as dark and heavy as the outside weather.  There was no welcome here. Of their older children, Betany, Leafmold and Burl, there was no sign, but Ivine, their youngest, and the cause of the tension that rested  in the room like a bird with a broken wing, squatted before the fire in the small pothearth.

"It's no good, Da," she sighed, small brown hands twisting the cord that lowered pots onto the cooking surface, "no use wishing it'd never happened.  I Dreamed what I Dreamed.  I can't un-Dream, not even for you and Muta.  I only wish I could!"

"But, Ivine, surely no-one..." "Ahem."  Trodwen cleared his throat loudly, making the three jump."I did knock, but, with the storm, you know."  He waved vaguely at the door before crossing to sit at the table beside Merwyn, taking her cold hand into his even colder one.  Jatoc started to rise, the sling back chair he had fashioned by hand scraping against the floor, but Trodwen motioned him back down.  Ivine, however, got up and poured him a cup of hot acorn tea, which Trodwen took gratefully letting the warmth from the old clay mug flirt with his chilled fingers.

"Now, then, young lady.  I hear you have Dreamed.  Please, sit and tell me."

Jatoc reached across the table to Merwyn when she sobbed even harder . Difficult to believe such a large noise could come from such a dainty little body, but Trodwen didn't begrudge her one tear.  If the little Hani had told him was true, then all of their lives would be changed this night.  The four of them-Hani, Merwyn, Jatoc and he had grown up in this wood together, had laughed and run, had learned their craft together, raised their children together, made music often, in this very room.  Now, in the blink of an eye that was all a portentous Dream took to spill into the mind it was meant for, everything would change.

Ivine eased herself into the chair beside her father, directly across from Trodwen.  She frowned, twisting her lips and scrunching up her forehead, not so much in anger as puzzlement, Trodwen thought.  In the brown eyes that were slightly slanted and two shades lighter than her skin, there was sad resignation.  Those eyes looked directly at him as she spoke. "Where to start, Mage?" Her voice, soft as spring rain on a newly born leaf was not hesitant, Trodwen was glad to note.  Hesitation could not be a trait of one who Dreamed.  "I didn't think I would, you know.  Dream.  I mean, I am kind of old, and, well, none of the others have." Ivine was right.  Usually, Dreams came before one reached the TENMARK although those who Dreamed, if their Dreams were to lead them away from all that was familiar, would not be expected to take up their new calling until they reached the age of consent.  Ivine had already passed fifteen full Marks.  Add to that the fact that no one else in her family had Dreamed, and it was all very strange.  The need  wherever she would go must be very great.  What was happening here tonight was quite probably connected to the strange patterns that had been emerging for so long.  His hours in the council chamber this endless day passed had been full of strange tales, from all the Guilds stretching the land, and even some from the few attendees from over the water.  Trodwen said nothing, simply stroked his beard with gnarled fingers and encouraged her with kind eyes to continue.

"Well, in my Dream, my feet were sore.  I looked down and saw that I wasn't walking a familiar woodland path.  The dirt I was on was grey and hard.  And so cold.  My feet are never cold in my voleskin boots. Then I saw that I wasn't wearing my old boots, nor any article of clothing I knew. I looked up then, and there was no tree canopy.  No blue sky or sun slanting down so comfortingly through branches, only a grey expanse that mirrored that on which I stood.  The smell of a thousand dirty fires in my nose, only no flame or smoke to be seen.  It was like someone had passed a thick veil of spiderwebs in front of my eyes; my eyes that have always seen clearly were that cloudy.

But, oh Mage, what I could see was enough to make my heart and soul cry.  Tall, tall, tall things that were never trees, and so big it seemed they would soon touch each other, crowding out the little space between them.  Flashing coloured lights that never in their lives were kin to sun or moonlight, bug glow or even walnut lantern light.  Giants whose strides were so great and so quick that I had to keep running and dodging so as not to be stepped on and crushed.  I mean, I have seen the giants before, walking our own woods, and each footfall they made was hard enough to shake the dishes off the shelves in our kitchen as they passed by.  And we have always known to plug our ears with fungus as they passed, because they would rupture our eardrums with their thunderous voices.  But they have only ever been one or two, and they soon pass.  In my Dream, there were too many.  And the noise, Mage!  Always noise, so deep I could drown in it, but not a thing I could understand."

Ivine pleated her cocoon silk skirt between quick fingers that shook ever so slightly.  Unthinking, she reached over, and, grabbing Trodwen's  tea, drained it with one audible gulp.  Wiping a hand over her mouth, she continued.  The tea had not helped to lubricate her throat; her voice when she continued was a raspy croak with a texture as rough as a peeling shaggybark tree.

"Then, Mage, oh then, I spied my family waiting a long way off across an expanse of the cold stuff beneath my feet.  I had brought them with me into my Dream.  I called, but they could not hear.  They were huddled together, and even from where I stood. I could see they were shaking like the leaves of the dancing trees, the ones that grow at the edge of our wood, that flash their dresses red, silver and gold in the wind.  My people are brave people, Mage, but they were terrified.  My only thought was to get to them. As I started walking, great shapes hurtled past me, and a huge black crow swooped in front of me, cackling.  What he said was 'Poor foolish Halfje, don't you know you will never go home again?' Then, Mage, I woke up." 

Silence except for Merwyn's cries, softer now, as if she was worn out from the effort of her tears.  Trodwen sat quietly for a bit, mulling over every aspect of Ivine's Dream.  The white braid in his beard seemed to pull tight as it always did when he heard something of great portent.  He resisted the urge to rub his chin and ease the strain, knowing from long experience that it wouldn't help.

This was the hardest part of his calling; harder than the death of a small creature that has been lovingly nursed for a long time.  At least in the death there was an ending of pain.  Not so with what would happen here tonight and in the days to come.

Ivine's Dream was real and could not be undreamed.  Could not be swept under the mats covering the floor.  Could not be pushed out of the house on the reeds of the little broom propped in the corner.  The loss to the wood would be palpable, like the stopping of a heartbeat.  For though they were not Mages, the family was known thoughout the wood as Healers, each in their own right.  There was no doubt in Trodwen's mind that their skills would be needed in the new place to which they would journey.  Nor did he doubt that, late to Dream or no, Ivine would make a great difference in the world.  That she would, if she lived, attain Mage status was a surety, but the cost of what would be achieved for the greater good could not be calculated over the course of a lifetime, so great was it.  Not just Ivine's life, but also the lives of her whole family would change, and not for the better. " I won't waste time with sympathy," he said now. " I won't try to interpret Ivine's Dream differently than you already have.  You knowwhat it means as well as I.  What I will do is help you to make this difficult move.  By the end of this day I will send a message to Ement of New Order Guild, asking him to find your family new lodgings.  I know this is asking a lot of you, Jatoc, Merwyn, Ivine.  And those of your family who are not here right now.  It is never an easy task to uproot yourself from what is dear and familiar.  But you are one of the strongest families in this wood.  You will be able to take that strength to the City and do what you were born to do.  Though Ivine is yet young, it seems that she may be unusual in more than just her Dreaming.  It seems to me from the urgency underneath the Dream, that Ivine may be called upon to take up her duties very soon.”

By the break of day, Trodwen had managed to calm Merwyn, talk to Ivine's siblings Betany, Leafmold and Burl, assuring himself that they understood the situation and were willing to move to the city.  None of them liked the idea; they had spent their entire lives in the wood.  It was a part of them and they a part of it.  They knew little of the city and what they had heard filled their hearts with dismay.  But, Trodwen knew, though they were filled with unease at the prospect of the move, they were Halftje.  They were proud of their sister's Calling and would support her any way they could.  So they would move as a unit.  They would use each other's strengths to help them make the transition to a totally foreign way of life.  Burl, the eldest male, was going to be married in the next Turn; his bride-to-be would also accompany them, Trodwen was sure.

Trodwen had also asked a Jay to send a message to Ement.  By next-day's end, he expected a reply.  After that, things should move quickly.  In a week, Jatoc's family would be settled into their new life.  Before they left, however, Jatoc and Merwyn, along with Ivine, would have to attend a Guild/Affinity meeting.  Trodwen had returned from the meeting with disquieting news that must be shared with all interconnected Affinity members.

The Old Woman knew; she had been first to sound the alarm, and she would preside over the coming meet. Likely she was sending word even now.  Hani probably had all the details and would fill Trodwen in as to time and place by the time he returned home.

Trodwen had journeyed years from his first Feat of Admittance to the Guild.  He was no fresh-faced Wizard; he had grown to fit his boots.  The braid of white hair woven into his beard seemed to grow fatter every day.  Though he was not as old as the Old Woman, his body and mind seemed these days to be a mass of aches and pains.  No, he was not an untried Greenling but of all the disconcerting news he had ever had to worry through, this was the worst.  The things he had heard had brought him close to despair; he now had a newfound appreciation for what Lost Souls Guild felt every day. However, he must put his personal feelings aside for the next long while; he had some small steps to take in helping Jatoc and his family with their move, and he would stay strong for them.

Trodwen’s plans, though they were well conceived, came to little.  It was long past a week before the family began their journey to the city, and Ement had come to the Wood, summoned by the Old Lady to attend a meet in the Great Hall.

 

"The world as we have known it is coming to an end.  There wasn't a whisper of sound from any of the Halftje gathered in the Hall dug deep into the hillside at the highest point of the wood.  Not only New Dawn/Forest Halftje, but also Eternity/Water and Aerie/Firmament were packed close, backed up to the earth and rock walls that were covered by tapestries woven of strong spiderweb silk, straining to see the Old Woman.  Light provided by dozen's of hand-rolled beeswax candles gave her aged features a benign glow. They didn't need to listen hard, her voice carried clear and resolute from the heartwood stump chair, with none of the infirmity normally associated with great age.  She was so ancient that no one present remembered her true name.  She was, simply, the Old Woman, a title that paid homage to her vast knowledge and wisdom.

"In the cities and forests throughout the country, meetings like ours are being held.  Our brethren over the broad waters are convening their own councils.  We have compared our findings over the last five full Turns, and we are agreed.  This planet is dying.  Unless we do something to save it, this world we live in, that we share with all the other creatures of land, water and air will cease to exist within fifty Turns."

The Old Woman sat back, hands tucked into the flowing sleeves of her white trumpet flower dress. The goldenrod pendant that was the focus of her great power emitted a steady glimmer of light, like a tenfold of glowydids were encapsulated inside, swirling around and around, their little headlights turned on to a steady beam.

The Old Woman was the Oldest of the Mages of these Affinities and Guilds.  The Old Man would be heading similar meeting for the other Guilds; across the broad waters, in every country, their counterparts were also hard at work.  Here, though, all attention was on the Old Woman of the Wood.  Her hair, under a pointed green leaf cap, was at halfway to white, signifying her great age and the fact that her personal power was almost at its peak.  Her hair, as with that of any Mage, served as the mark of her feats-the whiter the hair, the greater number of feats performed to make the world a better, safer place.  With every successful deed, a Mage's power grew.  But the use of that power also depleted a Mage's strength every time they used it after the three-quarter Mark of their lives.  When a Mage's hair turned completely white, whether after twenty Turns or two hundred, they died.  In the city, Trodwen knew, the need for their power was greater, and the Halftje living there did not live as long as their free counterparts.

No Halftje, Mage Healer or Ord, would not do everything in their power to help and heal-animals, birds, fish, plants, people.  Their race had been born into the world at so long ago a time that they themselves did not know when or where.  In everything they did, their motto was: To Preserve and Protect.  To this, their lives were sworn.

Which was why the Old Woman's words caused more than a low buzz of consternation among the normally polite people.

"WHAT??" 

"What do you mean?'

"Why"

"What can we do to stop this happening?" 

"Have we been such terrible caretakers, then?"  This last, in contrast to the babble in the Hall, was spoken quietly, each word falling, drop by drop, like night dew dripping from leaves overhead into a deep dark pool.  The effect was to hush the Hall, as the people strained to hear the words of Eleni, younger sister of Trodwen, Wizard Mage of Eternity Guild.  Eleni of the serene face and kind smile, frowned as she looked down at her last born, a baby still, needing to be cradled in his Mother's arms.  Then she locked stares with the Old Woman.

"Has this catastrophe, this forewarning of the end, come because we have failed in our duty, our purpose?"

No, Eleni Mage.  We, all the Nations of the Halftje, over hundreds of Turns, have held true to our Calling.  Even to those of us in the meanest, most dreary of cities, we have used that which nature provided. And, when there was need, helped the sick, the weak, the injured or confused, often at great peril to ourselves.

The problem is not one we caused, but it is one that will affect us more, and sooner, than those with whom we share this world.  We, none of us, were blind to this problem.  It is that we have felt helpless in the face of the very hugeness of it.  Where would we begin to undo what had been done, when every day, more and more was added to the harm?  Every time we made an effort to fix a thing that was wrong, another thing would sprout off that thing. Like the growth of a deadly disease, another part would bulge out and pop, as water that is dammed up will overflow it's banks and create new, ever faster moving streams."

"You are talking about what Mage Ement calls pollution, that creeping sickness that he says is going to turn our world from green and vibrant colour to a sickly sludgey brown clot.  I for one believe his words.  As I believe yours.  That is what will affect us, is affecting us, so that we will die before the giants of the world succumb.  It is because we are so small."  Eleni spoke again, her gaze shifting first to Trodwen and Hani, then to the masses surrounding her in the Hall, lastly to her husband Arlent.  She did not glance at her baby again, but her arms hugged his sleeping form a little more tightly to her tiny body.  "You are right, Old One.  Every day, in the streams running through the wood, we find dead fish.  Dead frogs.  Dead or dying birds, plants, bugs.  And all our powers cannot help them."  As a Water Affinity Wizard, Eleni, and to a lesser extent her people, were responsible for all the waterways-the ponds, creeks, lakes, rivers and streams, as well as the ocean that bordered this part of the world.

"Yes.  To all of you, I am talking about pollution.  We are sheltered in this wood, but even here the air is thicker and harder to breathe than it was when I came here as a child.  This is, as we have said, because the giants in the cities run their immense homes called factories.  The fuels they use to run these factories pour poisons into the air.  The wind blows as it will and the poisons are carried with the winds, to be scattered far and wide.  Some fall into the water, where the fish and frogs are affected.  There are other things that cause the pollution sickness.  Bad things from the huge houses where they make things.  The monstrous things they fold themselves into to go on a short trip that even we, with our small bodies and short legs would walk.  All these things cause the kind of pollution that no one is safe from; not the smallest of us or the largest of the giants.  Animals are born deformed and die.  The land becomes sick and cannot help green things to grow tall and nourishing.  Fish are not safe to eat.  Even the weather has changed the pattern of centuries-cold when it should be warm, dry when we pray for rains to replenish the soil.  The very fabric of the earth had changed, and the giants seem not to care."

"But...Old One," the speaker was a youngling of Trodwen's Affinity, his voice trembling as he spoke into the hush," how can we help this?  What can we do? Is this earth not our sacred trust?  How can we fail her?"

Quiet murmurs of agreement rose to a shout, heads nodding in unity.  The Old Woman raised a hand, instantly commanding silence.

"We cannot fail the earth, Arnel.  We will not fail this earth and her inhabitants. To do so means we would all die.

But we must change the way we do things.  Once, all Halftje had great power.  We did not merely nurse and nudge creatures into healing; we used our full powers to ensure health and well being for all save the most grievously ill or injured.  Once, there were many Mages who worked with the young, both Hafltje and Giant, to keep the air and the land and the waters fit for all life.

Somewhen in time, things changed.  Giants pursued dreams of making things, because they thought the things they made could make them happier than they already were.  They wanted to make things also that would make life easier for them.  Slowly, they stopped living in harmony with the earth.  They stopped working with us.  In time, we became invisible to them.  For our part, we retreated to what we thought were safe places, where we could continue to live the way we had always lived.  Because we no longer used them fully, our powers waned, until mere finger counts of Wizards were born into power.  Most of us were born with vestigial powers-to nudge, to persuade.  To nurse, rather than fully heal.

And when a Wizard comes through their Dream into their powers," here she gave a nod to Ivine, standing next to her parents and siblings, "they must go where the Dream directs them, often leaving behind that which they hold dear.  You know that they do this because they must.  Some of you ended up here because you Dreamed, and you followed the Dream to where your power was most needed.  But, even in the cities, though our people do their best, it is not from a position of strength.  None of us would forsake the wild free places if we had a choice.  Somehow, in the cities, many Halftje lose their way; they fall to illness and despair.  This too is part of the cost of the world the Giants have made."

The Old Woman paused for breath.  Every face in the Hall was raised to hers in expectation of her next pronouncement.  She did not disappoint.  Hand clasping her medallion, which now pulsed with life and power, her voice thundered with conviction.

"What we do, all that we have done to try and stem this tide of wrongness has not been enough.  We must change that which we do.  From this point on, every Mage is charged with training each person in his or her Affinity.  They will train to awaken in each person that power which is their birthright.  All of us will train to hone heart, mind, body and soul.We will hope to awaken in the Giants their old allegiance with us, so that together we can heal this world.  We will train as for war.  For make no mistake, all who are assembled here-this is a war.  And the cost of losing is death!"

More easily said than done, Trodwen thought as he stood off to one side, stroking his beard where the braid pulled taut.  The Old Woman was right; there were few full Mages left, perhaps three handfuls in the Guilds represented here.  Moreover, no one had taught these Mages their craft, they had all just come into it after Dreaming.  Yes, to be sure, they had spent lifetimes honing their various skills.  Mage had learned from Mage; Mages and Healers had exchanged knowledge as they were able, and they had all acquired valuable lore from the world around them. 

Some skills were generalized, others very specific.  Hani was no Mage, but she was an excellent Persuader, able to call small animals to her and have them do her bidding.  Trodwen’s strength lay in healing, in decision-making and in helping other Halftje see with greater clarity through the mists of confusion.  But HIS talent for talking to woodland creatures could be cradled in the cap of an acorn.  He could send simple mind pictures to a few creatures, but that was all.  Now the Old Woman was telling him and the other Mages that he must teach to others that which was inborn in him, and that he also must learn things for which he had no natural affinity.

Even as he was hoping the Old Woman had a plan, Trodwen realized that his mind had been adrift.  The Old Woman was still speaking.

“Each Mage must take the strongest Healers, Persuaders and Planners of their Affinity and work with them, to teach not just WHAT they know, but HOW they know it.  This will mean talking as well as sharing mind pictures and heart feelings.

Do not tell me that this cannot be done, for I know it can!  I am old enough to remember a time when all our knowledge was passed this way.  We have grown lax and lazy; we have let ourselves forget the old ways.  Now the need is great and we MUST remember. I will work with Trodwen and Arbec from New Dawn, Eleni from Eternity, Soren of Aerie, Chatlarra from Bridges Guild, Hae’ope of Lost Souls and Ement from New Order Guild. When each of these Mages can open their minds and channel what they know, they will be ready to work in small groups with the rest of you.”

The Old Woman paused to take a sip of water, looking over the assembled throng as she did so.  There were questions writ plainly on many faces.

“This is an arduous task I have set you,” she continued, “time is short, it is true, but we must work well before we can move fast.  Our knowledge must be strong and sure to be shared effectively.”

Now small murmurs eddied through the Hall.

The Old Woman ignored them.

“In the meantime, the rest of you are charged with carrying out your daily works.  I will also expect that each of you will make sure that your bodies are as strong and healthy as your minds.  That is all.”

“Perhaps, OLD WOMAN, that is not all.”  The tone, not the words, stopped the Old Woman rising from her chair.  There was challenge in those words, challenge and disrespect.  The rest of the Halftje realized this too, for there was a collective gasp and every head swiveled to the back of the Hall.

“It was not my intent to cut off discussion, young Tevane.  If you have something worth saying, please come forward and share with all.”

A very slight, very angry Halftje pushed his way through the crowds, coming to stand directly in front of the Old Woman.  Black hair stuck up in all directions on his head, like a frost-darkened cocklebur.  His clothing was torn and wrinkled and he smelled faintly of damp and wood smoke.  The sneer he wore was comfortable on his face, the kind of face mothers held in their minds as they warned their little ones to hush crying lest the malsprite of the woods come and drag them away.

“What should we care for the Giant’s fate?  They made their world; now let them live in it!  They do not help Haftje; they do not even acknowledge our existence!  I say, let them go their way and we will go our way.”

“I know that you were listening Tevane, so it is not that you didn’t hear.  Why don’t you understand that the fate of the Haftje is strongly linked to the fate of the Giants?  What can I offer you of words that will make sense to you?  If the Giant’s succumb to the world of pollution that they have made, you may rest assured that we Haftje will have gone long before.  Our lungs are smaller; the pollution even now affects our children.  Many of them are weaker.  They sicken who were most resilient before.  Many of them awaken at night gasping for breath.  In our woods, by our waters, even into our mountains this ugly grey sickness marches relentlessly.  There is nowhere this thread of death has not reached.  It affects us all, Tevane.  No-one is immune.”

“I think you are wrong.  Perhaps you like to stir us up because it gives you pleasure to see us scurrying like frightened voles out in the daytime sun.  Who among us has ever said ‘no’ to the grand revered Old One?”

A collective gasp ran through the Hall.  No Halftje in memory had ever spoken so rudely to another, let alone challenged a leader so.  Such blatant disrespect should not, could not possibly be allowed.  Could it?

The Old Woman appeared unruffled.  “There is one who dared challenge me.” She said, “as you well know, youngling.  She who was my sister lost the challenge and was banished for her pains, because she refused to live in harmony with the rest of us.  Is it that you now stand here to challenge me?”

Tevane ducked his head, mumbling.  He knew, as did all assembled, that a challenge was not issued or taken up lightly.  He had no wish to challenge, or to be banished.  His tongue, however, would not be stilled.

“Yes,’ he cried after a moment, lifting his head.  “You caused Sylanna to seek a life away from all she held dear and now she lives in a dank dark cave, surrounded only by her snakes.  It is not just I who say you are wrong in this matter. Sylanna has been studying the Giants.  She says the Giants must perish of this creeping death because they are closer to it than we are.  She says we, YOU, know ways that will protect us here in the forest.  Sylanna says that when the Giants are gone from the earth that the Halftje can take it over and make it our own.  She says that the world will revert to nature, much as it was hundreds of years ago.  I believe her!”

“Then I am sorry for you, young Tevane.  You hear lies and accept them as truth.  Perhaps you have thrown your lot in with the lady of snakes.  That is your choice.  You are welcome to stay and talk to any who wish to hear you, but I must go.  There is much to be done.  Good day to you all.”  The Old Woman left the Hall, the other Halftje filing out in her wake.

Tevane was left standing alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

Trodwen’s mind was bruised from mentally dueling with the Old Woman.  He was sure she derived a great deal of enjoyment from trying to project her vast store of lore into his brain.  It was like being battered by thorny branches in a gale force wind.  SHE, on the other hand, had no difficulty assimilating his information.  It was scant comfort that Eleni, Arbec and Soren fared no better.  As for Ement and those of the other, more somber Guilds, Trodwen felt strong sympathy.  Free places like Forest, Water and Sky had much in common.  Ement of Lost Souls had been heard to say that he, Hae’ope and even Chatlarra, whose Guild was charged with building bridges between the two diverse groups of Halftje, had the additional burden of trying to grasp entirely new terms of reference.  How hard it would be on Ivine and her family when they moved to the city and had to unlearn everything they knew and start fresh.  The adults, the best Mages they had, had been at this for seventeen sunrises now, camped in the big Hall, shielded from all outside interference, and still they limped along.

Oh!  There-he felt it; an itch this time, not the hurting of a rock falling on his head but a tickle that teased a little opening in Trodwen’s mind.  He held himself still as the Old Woman had counseled, taking deep solid breaths.  The tiny opening widened.  Starbursts floated in front of Trodwen’s closed eyes.  Then, a flood of knowledge, dusty, archaic, but strangely current, gushed through with such force that he staggered backward and would have fallen had his staff not been so firmly planted in the dirt.

Abruptly, the flood shut down.

“I think you have the way of it now, Mage,” the Old Woman said, rising from her stump. “That is enough for a while.  Too much knowing at one time will burn holes in your brain.  Use the rest of this day to become familiar with that which is new and how best to pass it on.  I will meet with you again at Evenglow.”  She beckoned Arbec to take his place.

Dismissed, Trodwen tottered back to his campsite in the bowels of the great cave.  Bright lights glowed in his mind much as the Old Woman’s pendant glowed, each light a pinpoint of information.  For the first time in a long time, Trodwen was hopeful.  If he, and they could keep learning, and if they could teach others, then maybe the world could be saved.

***************************

 

“They can see us, you know.  And hear us, some of them.”

“Who can see and hear us, Ement?”

The two Mages were sitting cross-legged on their sleeping platforms, Ement’s little red triangular hat pulled low over his forehead.  The harsh lessons of time had etched themselves into Ement’s bearded face, cutting chasmic lines into his forehead and around his mouth.  He was a bit shorter than Trodwen, though their bodies were a lot alike-stumpy and roundish.  Ement was dressed in trous sewn from Giant’s cast off cloth scraps and a jerkin made of nothing they had seen before, with tiny holes through woven strands of white.  His boots were fashioned of rat skin fitted tightly to his feet and ending just below his knees.  There was a lot of white in his hair, speaking of much power used.  He was pale as river clay, likely because, living in the fog-circled city, he saw little of the sun.  He wouldn’t turn to fully face Trodwen, whether from deference or natural shyness, Trodwen couldn’t tell; though why Ement should think he had to defer to Trodwen was a mystery.  Nevertheless, the effect was odd.  Ement’s whispered comments bounced off the wall before reaching Trodwen’s ear, giving each word a weird magnified echo.

“The young Giants.  Children, they call them.”

“THEY CAN??!!”

“Yes, of course.  Remember what the Old Woman said.  Giants and Halftje used to live and work closely together for the good of the world.  When Giants turned to machines they turned away from the natural elements we used.  Maybe they forgot us because they stopped believing in what we stood for.  Maybe they felt bad because they knew we wouldn’t fit into the world they were so busy building.  Who knows?  In time, the Giants stopped believing that  Halftje  WERE.  They stopped seeing us. Though for a time we may have still sung the same songs, we no longer sang them together.”

“But the children of Giants didn’t stop seeing us?”

“It makes sense, really.  Very young children believe in magic because they haven’t yet been taught NOT to.  There are even those who can see and here us until they are your Ivine’s age, simply because they refuse to give up the evidence of their own eyes and ears.  Until now, we have tried to avoid those who could see us, because the complications of being noticed were too great.”

“And now?”  Trodwen pulled thoughtfully at his beard.  Perhaps, he thought, he was about to understand the purpose behind Ivine’s Dream.

“Now, friend Trodwen, I think it is time to come out of hiding!  I think it is time to start recruiting young Giants to our mutual cause!  There are many young ones whose parents still hold threads of the long ago green way in their souls; these are the ones who hear, see and believe in us most completely, these are the children we should start to work with.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER III

 

“Pah! My sister is a fool!  She has always been weak and simpery, ever acting champion to the cursed Giants.  I credit nothing she says!”

Sylanna stood at least two heads taller than other Halftje.  Her black hair flowed freely to the mid point of her back and blended into the ground length ebony cloak she wore.  No white coursed through Sylanna’s locks, for though she was Mage born, her powers had always been used to harm, not heal.  The snakes that she forced to her bidding wove resentfully around her feet.  Two emerald snakes formed a living girdle, criss-crossed as they were around the length of her long claret coloured gown.  Anger spat from eyes as black as her hair.

Tevane was tired.  He had traveled an eightday to reach Sylanna’s cave, eating and sleeping little on the way.  He wanted to sink into a bed of leaves and pass into oblivion for at least a day, but dared not.  He had not technically been banished, but no member of any clan would hear his words after the big meeting.  His own parents and sibs had cast him pitying looks as they left the Hall.  Now he felt he had no choice but to throw his lot in with Sylanna.  She stood tall before him, a scowl on her finely drawn face, daring him, perhaps, to say the wrong thing.  Tevane’s stomach felt like it wanted to come up through his throat, so great was the fear and awe the darkling Haftje Wizard inspired in him.

Sylanna, with her dark magics was every bit as powerful as the Old Woman.  He must choose his words carefully.  If he mis-spoke, she could turn him into something not of nature and leave him hurting for the rest of his days.

“You are wise, T’Char Sylanna,” he said now.  “Your Wizard sight is many times greater than your sister’s.  I believe you have the right of it and that the Giants will die of their own poisons long before they can really impact our sheltered places.  But, T’Char, there are only two of us.”  There, he’d done it though he couldn’t quite fathom why-he’d thrown his lot in with hers.  Would she accept him or turn him into a tainted mushroom?

Sylanna merely quirked an eyebrow.

Encouraged, Tevane continued, “I did try to talk to other Halftje, but,” he spat contemptuously, “they are all under thrall to the Old Woman and rush like foolish ants to do her bidding.  If she is successful in teaching them the old lost ways, then the steps of the Halftje will merge once more with those of the Giants.”

“And if they do, quisling Tevane?  What then?”

He gulped.

“Then, T’Char, I think we would be lost.  How can you challenge your sister, how can you hope to lead and reclaim the world for all Halftje if you have no followers save me?  Doubt not that I am loyal to you,” he added hastily as he saw sparks glowing in her strange eyes with their slanted pupils, “but I am only one and I have not Dreamed, nor am I likely to.  What can two do against an army?”

“Why Tevane, I’m surprised at how little you understand.  If my sister can teach others what she knows, then surely I will be able to impart my vast store of knowledge to you.”

“Still. T’Char, there is only one of me.  All others follow the Old Woman.”

“Perhaps not ALL, Student Tevane.  There are other Guilds and Affinities hidden in the dark places of the world, struggling daily with hopelessness and despair.  Many who believe they have been forgotten, and are worth nothing.  Many of these will easily be drawn to my vision, you can rely on that.”

Tevane paced nervously in front of the cave entrance. No matter how cold the day was, it always felt half again as chill wherever Sylanna was.  Though it was getting on to the new-growth season, there was still a hazards breath of snow in the air.  Way too cold for snakes that should still have been adenning, but no creature in Sylanna’s thrall could say her ‘no’. However, the snakes weren’t happy about their enslavement. Each time Tevane’s footsteps took him past his Mage, the two snakes entwined about her waist lifted their heads and hissed sluggishly.  Jewel hued drops of poison glistened on the tips of rust-red fangs.  Tevane didn’t know where the snakes had come from, but he was sure they were not native to these woods.  And he was scared.  He too was welded to Sylanna, strongly in her grip.  But, feckless as he had been to throw his lot in with hers, he was not stupid.  The creatures who even now wove intricate patterns around Sylanna’s feet meant nothing to her.  He had seen many die of the cold.  He had seen his Mage throw their bodies carelessly into the bush.  For each one that perished, two more came gliding through the underbrush to take their place.

Tevane was sure that Sylanna COULD entreat legions of the disaffected to serve her.  Once she had her army, she would have no use for him.  Far from teaching him what she knew, she would crush him as heedlessly as she crushed the leaves underfoot.

Where would she throw his carcass to rot?  He was not left long to ponder this disturbing thought.  Sylanna had plans.

“Come, Tevane.  We must prepare for a long journey.  If what you tell me of this younglings Dream is true, then she and her family will soon leave to take their place in the city.  I’m sure Ement-fool will accompany them, and I wish to be no more than a footstep behind.  Where better to find acolytes than among the disenchanted in the foul nest the Giants call a City!

*************************************************

 

Nighttime encompassed Ement’s group, the dark denser than pond muck, for the tree canopy above them let in no starlight at all.  They had traveled as long as they could, trusting only to the squirrels’ sense of direction to keep them on their path.  When they finally camped for the night, they were all to tired to do more than build a small fire to keep away the night-flying biters, and to grab a handful each of ground meal crackers to stave off the sniping hunger in their bellies.  No idle chat just dispirited ‘Safe night, happy dreams’.  The squirrels, freed of harness, decided to spend the night in the tallest tree.  Since Hani had not accompanied them, Jatoc would have to use the best of his skills come daybreak to persuade them back into service.  Packs were hauled to one side of the fire to use as sleep rests; the fur mats that were a buffer between rider and squirrel hide would serve as blankets.

Riding squirrels was not an easy task.  Granted, they covered ground faster than any Halftje could walk, but each long bound jarred the rider unmercifully, whip sawing bodies back and forth, snapping heads so hard that it was a wonder their necks didn’t break. Trodwen was sure it was hard on the beasts as well, and had asked Ement to slow their pace.  Ement had refused, glancing warily behind him, to nothing the others could see.  When Trodwen asked him what he saw, Ement’s reply was brusque and not at all helpful

“I sense something wrong in these woods, and want to be quit of them as soon as possible!”  Trodwen thought that maybe Ement’s sense of wrongness was because he was a city dweller and NO woods would feel good to him, but he said nothing.

Who knew what scenery they passed, since it was all a pain filled blur?  Squirrels had no sense of place or formation when they were Persuaded, just a need to get where they were going in order to get a reward.  More than a few crashes resulted as the rodents crossed each other’s paths.  Trodwen had been involved in a few smash-ups; as a result, he had a massive headache.  After the others turned in for the night, he heated a small pot of water over the fire and added powdered willow bark to make a tea that should relieve most of the ache.  It was hot, but he didn’t wait, sipping it one careful mouthful at a time, at the same time listening to the night sounds surrounding the campsite.  He had grown up in these woods, had only crossed their borders a handful of times to go to the city for important meets.  Though this part of the wood was not his territory, he was comfortable with most of the rustlings and squeaks that came to his ears; they were both familiar and dear.  But there were also noises-not many, but THERE-, that didn’t belong to the night.  Almost, as he strained, cocking his head to one side, could he hear whispers.  Faint, but he’d have sworn they were human, not forest creature.  As he rose to go and investigate, the whispers ceased and the wood was itself once more.

Already, he missed Hani.  He could almost see her as she’d stood, hands on hips, supervising the packing of his bag.

“Make sure you have plenty of ‘corns for the squirrels and rats.”

AND

“Make sure to pack enough warm clothing, not just the old chopped off trous and jerkins I saw you toss in there.  I know the Full Sun Season is upon us, but who knows what weather you will encounter on the journey.”

AND

“Take this feather cover, it’s warm and light.  Also take this feather pack.  You can place it on a rock at night to cushion your head as you sleep.”

AND

“Take a keepsake from each of the children.”  Never mind that the ‘children’ were all grown and gone, nothing would do but that he tuck a button from Termid’s old shirt, a dried blue flower from a bouquet Chinny had picked ages ago, and a feather from Allwood’s ancient cap into an inside pocket of his vest.

AND

“Do you have a mug?  I know Merwyn has packed a kettle and pans, and I have sent her a share of dried acorn meat and forest thistle, but you need your own mug.”

Until, finally, Hani tucked the image of a warm hug from her, for the times she was sure it would be needed, into a tiny space in his brain, and he was mounted on a squirrel (the same one?  He didn’t know, and he still had not mastered the knack of calling them, so Hani had done it again.  One of the skills he’d have to work on.)  As it loped away, Trodwen twisted as far as he could, and waved to Hani waving at him until she was lost to sight.

Almost, he had not come on this journey.  They were not out of the wood yet and already he felt the keen gut-twist of separation.  There had been no actual need for his presence, since Ement was with the group and would see them safely to new lodging as well as help them make their way in the city, but Trodwen felt compelled.  Part of his desire was to stay with his lifefriends a bit longer; some was to continue his discussions with Ement about the children of Giants.  He was eager to see for himself the truth of Ement’s words and find a way to use the children in the coming battle.  Not through harm or bloodshed, that was NEVER a Halftje way, but could they be talked to, Persuaded to help?  THAT was what he wished to know.  There was something else though, something unnamed that made him feel he HAD to go, even when it meant his studies with the Old Woman were put on hold.  To her credit, the Old Woman had not questioned that which Trodwen himself did not understand.

“Perhaps we all need to pay more heed to that small voice within us, my friend.  Go with my blessing.” 

Still a bit uneasy about the odd sounds he’d heard, but with his headache ebbing, Trodwen rolled himself into his fur mat and, feet to the fire, slept.

 

“Quiet, you fool!  Sylanna hissed at Tevane.

“Sorry, T’Char, I only meant to ask….” He whispered as close to her ear as he dared.

“Quiet, I said!  The Great Trodwen can hear us!”  The ‘Great Trodwen’ was said with a sarcastic sneer.  Sylanna pushed Tevane away with the tip of her cudgel.  Abashed, he turned back to the task of tethering the rats they had ridden, drawing in a painful breath as one of them lunged and bit him deep on his shoulder, tearing the flesh away and leaving blood to course down his arm.  He would have to treat the bite soon, Tevane knew.  An untreated rat bite would quickly fester.  Sylanna would pay no heed to his injury, she’d probably add to his pains by cuffing him on the ear for his clumsiness.  His T’Char might be great, but Tevane knew from experience that she was not the nurturing sort.  He wondered if, in their haste to pack and follow Ement’s group, they had remembered to pack any healing balm.

 

Ement’s group set off the next morning after breaking their fast with dried burdock and cups of acorn tea.  Already in the early dawn, there was hint of the heat to come, and Trodwen was glad the boughs of the great freel and tbrack trees that formed a roof overhead would shade them.  His headache vanished, Trodwen felt better, none of the disquiet of the previous night intruding on his thoughts, and it was only a slight damper on his feeling of well being that he again failed to call down the squirrels to aid them.  Ah, well-he’d master the gift soon, and, in the meantime, clever Jatoc had not only called them, but had devised a system to make their journey more pleasant.  By dint of leaving a time-space between when one squirrel left and the next departed, they would manage to avoid the crashes of the day before.  All agreed to stop at a place familiar to Ement, so it was left to him to visit each animal, fixing the location firmly in their minds.  He also took care to warn them not to stop and nibble on stray nuts they found along the path.

CHAPTER IV

 

Sylanna’s plans to leave shortly after Ement’s group were thwarted by the big rat that had bitten Tevane and by Tevane himself.

Wood rats, dark brown, big and powerful, had been chosen them for their tirelessness and speed.  They were also very intelligent and able to take large blocks of instruction and act on them.  But these very traits made them hard to manage.  Sylanna could not force them to her bidding the way she did snakes.  None of the rats wanted to act as pack animal or riding steed, despite Sylanna’s promise of reward.  She had finally succeeded in packing the contents of their camp on the quietest beast and harnessing the smaller rat for Tevane.  The big rat, however, was not in a tractable frame of mind.  After biting Tevane the previous night, the creature had fought against being tethered.  It would not yield it’s name, no matter how hard Sylanna probed.  If she had it’s name, she could control it more easily, but no matter.  She could have let him go and tried calling another, but that would have meant defeat, and she refused to back down.  Ever. 

Finally, tiring of the struggle, she sent a bolt of pain to it’s brain that subdued it long enough for her to shrug the unfamiliar harness in place. The physical and mental effort left her gasping.

At that, she was in much better shape than her young pupil.  Tevane’s bite had become sorely infected.  Sylanna had never Dreamed; she had no healing powers.  But any fool could recognize that the red swelling and heat of his body signaled a raging fever.  Very inconvenient.  Were it not for the fact that he was her only disciple and that she would need his help to recruit others in the city, she would not be bothered with him.  No matter: he would have to climb up and hold on any way he could.  If he fell off, she would leave him behind as food for the worms.

“Get up.” She snarled, kicking him with the toe of her boot.  “Time is wasting, we have far to go and much to do.”

Prod as she might, Sylanna could not make Tevane rearrange himself from a sorry huddled lump on the ground.  This was a problem. If she left him here, he could, probably would, die, and it had been a struggle to recruit him in the first place.  Worse, if she left him here and he somehow recovered then he, disenchanted by her desertion, might, no, probably WOULD, disclose her plans to that meddling old she-fowl, he sister.  This complication Sylanna did not need.

Quick thought brought a possible plan.  Momentarily releasing the two girdle snakes-she did not want to crush them, after all- Sylanna half dragged, half carried Tevane and, pushing first from one side then pulling from the other, she finally had him arranged like a sack of forest loam over the back of the harnessed rat.  She tethered his rat to her own, binding their tails firmly together with bindweed, then lashed the packrat to Tevane’s mount in the same manner.  The effort left her panting, disheveled and sweaty.  Deliberately, she straightened her gown and recalled the snakes to their proper place before mounting the larger sulking rat.  In order for her plan to work, they must travel in a wide circle, sparing no speed from the rodents.  Just as well they were still in the wood, she thought sourly.  She knew it, every leaf and rivulet as well as any of the snivelers whose home it was.  And Knowing was power.

Fixing a picture-site firmly in the rodent’s mind, she lashed its rump with a stick from the ground.  The rat, powerless to do anything else, took off at a run.

 

*******************************

 

 

The days journey had progressed better than he’d hoped, Trodwen thought, easing his clamoring bones from atop the squirrel.  He hurt, merciful starlight he hurt, but this day’s travels were an improvement over yesters.  No crashes, and they had made better time, even with a stop at midlight to eat.  The others were even chattering away as they released the squirrels and set about making camp.  Ivine and Burl were already collecting dead twigs and branches for the fire ring that Leafmold was building out of rocks.  Ement rummaged in a pack for the utensils to make last-meal.  Ement, much to Trodwen’s surprise had turned a fair hand to the cooking, making a tasty much out of little for the midlight meal.  Trodwen himself could not so much as boil a squawk-bird’s egg properly.  Merwyn, though a good cook, seemed content to give over the chore to Ement.  She and Jatoc gathered greenboughs, dragging them into place to serve as bedding bases.  They would all sleep softer through the dark.

After sup, Trodwen planned to oil the harness and riding rigs.  Now, he decided, a walk around camp to scout out the best place to return their bodily wastes to the earth would serve to ease the ache in his bones.  He set out on a natural path covered by last Turns leaf and needle fall.

On this second day of the journey, they were still deep within the wood, but much farther than Trodwen had gone before, at least in the direction that Ement was heading.  Even that which was familiar was not.  The trees were the same KIND of trees, with dark green fuzzy halespren growing on their distaff sides, good either as a soup or as a healant, but they were not HIS trees-they felt and sounded different.  Now and then he passed little clearings that he thought might suit their purpose, but the new flowers struggling bravely through last years undergrowth seemed too bright and cheerful to be disturbed, and so he went just a little further, Then he came to the rim of a small circle where nothing grew, though there seemed to be a log in the middle of it-a handy seat for when the need arose.

“Jatoc!  Ement!  Burl!  Find me here. Quickly!”

The men dropped what they were doing and ran towards the sound of Trodwen’s voice.  He had not gone far, less than five hands strides from the camp.

“What is it, Trodwen?  Are you hurt?”  Breathless, the men skidded to a stop in front of Trodwen, their eyes casting wildly about in search of what had alarmed him.  Halftje were not, never had been, weapons-bearers.  They lived in harmony with the world around them, and had long been used to avoiding any creature that sought to do them ill, so they carried nothing with which to defend themselves.  They were looking for an enemy, not the familiar, so at first their eyes passed over what Trodwen had seen. Then…

“Tevane.”

“By the cold white, it is young Tevane!”

“What brings him so close to our path?”

“Was he following us?”

“What ill has come his way that he lays there and speaks not?”

“I do not know,” Trodwen answered their questions, “nor do I know where his Dark Companion can be.  Close, I vow, since he has long been attached to her use.  I do know this-whatever has befallen them, Tevane burns with fever.  We cannot leave him here.”

Sylanna watched from her cover in a near bush.  She would settle herself, farther from here, but still close enough to monitor Trodwen’s little group daily.

It took all of them to carry Tevane back to camp, taking three times as long to get back, for the stumps and rocks they had fairly leapt over in their haste to get to Trodwen had to be carefully outwitted, but they did not let go of their burden.  There seemed to be no strength to his bones, so that he folded in the middle when they tried to pick him up and his fever-bright body was so hot that it felt as though their hands were being held too close to a fire and would soon blister and burn.

*********************

Back at camp, even as the questions flew, a bed was made ready, water was put to boil and Merwyn stripped the clothes from Tevane’s body, wincing when she discovered the bite mark.  Rising, she went to the pack that held their balms and medicinal roots, at the same time sending Jatoc and Ivine to gather some of the halespren from the trunks of nearby trees, that she would use to cover the bite, binding it with clean spider webs.  She then brewed a tea made from yellowroot and spruce bud mixed with pine needles, sieving it through layers of web, then feeding the broth to Tevane sip by sip as Ement knelt behind, supporting the upper half of Tevane’s body while Ivine held his jaw open.  Most of the brew dribbled down his lax chin and onto the fur covering him, but at last Merwyn was satisfied that enough of the mixture was in him.

Tevane roused a little when they rolled him over to inspect for other wounds.  Not finding any, Merwyn cleansed the bite, causing him to moan in pain.  The whole time, she spoke soothingly, telling Tevane that he was with friends, that what they did would help him to heal; apologizing for the additional pain they caused, smoothing on ointment with the gentlest of fingertips.  Ement, Trodwen, Jatoc and the rest stood in a circle around Tevane, adding their own encouragement to his healing, speaking in strong words the pictures they held in their minds of a healthy happy Tevane who was one with the world around him.  Over and over, until pain smoothed from his face like waves smooth sand and Tevane slept.

“It would seem that we must interrupt our journey and camp here for at least a hand span of time,” Ement sighed.  “While light remains, we should see to what is necessary to turn this into a more permanent camp.”

 

*********************

 

They hadn’t done badly by any lights, Trodwen thought, looking over their temporary home.  Rough buildings of branches dug into the ground on three sides, the roofs criss-crossed with smaller twigs and laid on with large overlapping M’Pel leaves, the whole weighed down by vines thrown overtop and held in place at ground by rocks tied to the ends.  Four of these they had built, and it had taken the best part of the second day in labour, but they would be sheltered should it rain and the wind come to play.  Packs and harnesses stored neatly in one shelter, greenboughs and sleepfurs in two more and fresh water and healing stuffs in the last.  They had made one cote larger for everyone else to sleep in; though there was barely room to turn over, it would suffice.  The smaller sleeping cote would hold Tevane’s bed and a pallet for whichever Healer was with him, since all had agreed to take it in turns to tend him.

 

 

CHAPTER V

That night, all save Burl were seated wearily on their beds, which had been arranged as if they were around a campfire.  The campfire itself was outside, a safe distance from the shelters, and long since banked for the night. They would have to rely on each other for warmth should it cool during the night.  There was no light in this cote, though Burl had a brathlem gourd filled with acorn oil in the one to the side. They had only brought a certain amount of oil, and whoever tended the patient would have the greatest need.  No starlight came down through the immense trees of the wood, but the Halftje gave little thought to the fact that they could not see each other’s faces.  They could hear and their attention was rapt upon Trodwen, awaiting the answer to a question Ivine had asked.

“As to that, Ivine, I do not know.  As far back as memory goes, some Halftje have Dreamed.  Though who do usually though not always, in the fullness of time become Wizards.  There seem to be many changes in the wind, however, and who can now say what will be?  We are learning more and more ways to share our abilities with each other.  Is this only because there is great need now, or is it as the Old Woman has said, that in the times before memory, we all had these gifts, though not in equal measure?  Perhaps now we will all be Mages.  Perhaps there will be no Mages at all.  The Old Woman told me that once we shared these abilities with the Giants, but that they have forgotten.”

“But, Mage, if it will be true that all of us share the same gifts, why do we now need to leave our homes and go to the city”?  White Flower, Burl’s intended, shuddered as she said the word ‘city’.  She had agree to come with Burl, as she truly loved him and did not want to part from him, but was filled with dread at the thought of living in what she called ‘a big dirty smell’.

“As to that, young Flower, though we may in time share all gifts equally, we do not yet.  There are still Healers and Persuaders among us.  Had the Great Unknown not seen need, Ivine would surely not have Dreamed.  I think we must all have patience while what will be unfolds.  There is no doubt in my mind that the need is great, that the world of Giants and our own is in peril and that we are here to fight that peril.”

“Besides,” Ement broke in, “you all seem to think the city is a horrid place.”

“Isn’t it? White Flower asked, shuddering delicately again.  She, unlike most of the woodland Halftje, was not brown in colour, but the white of foam as it plunges down a waterfall, for all that she and her parents parents parents had been born to the wood.  Her hair, worn to her shoulders, was wavy and the colour of sunbird feathers, her eyes the exact shade of new halespren, with dark specks scattered through the green.  She came only to Burl’s shoulder and was slender to the point of seeming fragile, but White Flower’s gift was the ability to calm wild creatures that had been hurt and she was called on almost daily to handle creatures many times her size.  She had been hurt too, but had never backed down.  Now, she quailed at the thought of life lived away from the wood.

“No,” Ement said, “it is not.  Is the wood a terrible place?

“No!”

“Of course not!”

“It’s a wonderful place, full of life and miracles!”

“How can you even ask such a question?”

“Because your wood, the wood you say is so wonderful, is a place full of danger to the unwary.  A body could trip over a tree limb and break one of his own.  Or slip on a slimy rock and tumble into fast moving water and drown.  Eat a tender plant that kills.  Be carried away and eaten by a creature that prowls the night.

“Yes, Mage Ement, these things do sometimes happen, but usually to those who are new here and forget to heed the warnings we give. There are always a few who do not learn quickly enough  Most of us share a kinship with the creatures that roam the wood.  They know that we stand to help and guard them.”  Leafmold spoke up this time, surprising them.  Leafmold, who, at the TENMARK was already a deep thinker with quick steady hands to a task, but a youngling who never spoke if a look would do.  This declaration from him was almost a Turns worth of words.  Ement, who had only this journey’s worth of acquaintance, but who was at one with Leafmolds shy manner, took his question at value and answered,

“This is true,” he said, “but it is as true of the city as it is of your wood.  Anywhere you go there will be dangers.  There will be need to learn how to avoid those dangers.  There will be new customs to adopt as your own, without losing those that have brought you this far in life.  You must learn to separate the good from the bad, using the good to overcome what is wrong.  And the city has many good things to say for itself.

There is still green space.  There are trees, birds, plants.  All of those things you find here, just not in such abundance.  You can still dance and sing and make music; you may even find that you like learning new instruments and new tunes.  Yes, the grey ground is hard underfoot and smear in the sky scares away the stars, but there are also Giants who recognize the dangers even as we do and want to change things.  We can help.”

“How easy is this for you to say, Mage, when you have lived in the city all your life?”  Trodwen could almost see Leafmold as he spoke: long brown hair hanging down in his face, slender body braced on long slender arms as he leaned forward in all serious intent to hear the answer.

Ement was silent for a long moment

“Strange,” he began after a time, speaking in a rough clogged tone.  He cleared his throat noisily then began again.  “Strange that you would think that I was city-born.  I am originally of Aerie Affinity, but Dreamed at the TWELVEMARK, so came to the city with my family-parents, brother and sister.  My parents long ago stretched to ride the four wild winds; my brother and sister came to their own Dreams and joined with different Affinities.”

“Even after so long a time, I miss the place of my birth.  Miss standing in the face of the storm and hearing it sing to me.  Miss riding on the wings of Skyreigns and hearing them speak.  So long ago it seems the memories should have faded into dreams growing ever fainter in the breeze.  But though I am old now and have done much in my time, though I live in the city and have learned to adjust to her swift changing ways, still my heart beats to the rhythm of the Aerie.”

Trodwen thought of the Ement he had seen so many times through the MARKS.  Trodwen too thought that Ement had been city born.  Seems that he had always looked old and careworn with his skin the colour of streambank clay, and the wide white streak in his hair. Whenever Ement spoke at Guild or Council meets, everyone stopped their mouths to listen, because his words carried the wisdom of experience.  Ement had always FELT old to Trodwen.

He guessed the same could be said for the way other perceived him, for who, save those he had grown up with would remember the Trodwen who was young and unlined and full of happy mischief?  Funny how his heart still felt young.  He doubted Ement could say the same.

Ements next words were a complete surprise.

“Still,” Ement continued, “I feel young.  And while the Skyreign and his cousin the Hauk will no longer come close to me in the city, still sometimes they circle overhead and dip their wings in greeting.  I am not forgotten by the sky dwellers.  And all of the family of black birds are still willing to carry me in flight-shorter perhaps and not as wild, but still freedom.  Jewelbirds come to visit; hovering so close I can see their tiny heart beating.  And the same blue squawkbird that nests in these woods also makes it’s home in the city.  As do the forest robbers with the black fur over their eyes.  Squirrels and rats and bats.  Singing wild dogs, who, as their lands shrink, move to the fringes of the city and roam it’s streets at night, making meal of the Giant’s pets.”

“But, Mage, is this a good thing, to have wild things pent in a city?”  This from Ivine, who lay on her bed of boughs and fur, head propped on her hands, listening hopefully to all Ement had to say.  The smile that had begun to bloom on her face as Ement spoke now disappeared in a frown of concern.

“Young Ivine, it is not.  Wild things belong in the wild.  We all know this.  The pollution sickness affects those of the wild who make their home in the city more strongly than it does those of the wood.  We must find a way to help to help the Giants find the balance they have lost.”

“Maybe,”  Ivine said, yawning hugely, “that is why I Dreamed.”

Ivine’s yawn proved contagious and soon they were all abed.  All that is save Trodwen and Ement, who, after checking on Tevane, sat under a big tree and talked the night away.

 

CHAPTER VI

 

 

Shortly after the third firstlight at their camp, other Halftje living in that part of the wood visited them.  Cuen and his wife Neatha were Healers who, like White Flower, worked mostly with large creatures.  They had both attended the meet in the Hall, and were eager to talk over shared experiences.  Theirs was a smaller group than Trodwen’s, perhaps only two hands worth of people, but they were all people who took the woods’ welfare to heart.

Trodwen had stayed with Tevane through the night, feeding him warm spruce bud tea sip by sip whenever he roused, and more when Tevane awoke enough into himself to wonder where he was.  Now Trodwen was tired, but welcomed Cuen and Neatha as they inspected a sullen Tevane’s wound and pronounced it healing nicely.  They did not nudge Tevane to speak, nor had any of the others, and Tevane offered not even the smallest nod of gratitude.  Ah, well, thought Trodwen, no Halftje had ever done their work for thanks or personal gain-not in these woods, at least.  Burl cut Tevane a staff of deadwood to steady him as he staggered weakly to his daily business.  Ivine brought him a bowl of warm water and clothes to wash with, and Merwyn nettle broth and some acorn cakes.  Then they left him in Leafmold’s care to go and visit.

Merwyn and Neatha traded recipes for healing balms and teas.  Trodwen, Ement, Cuen and Burl settled back in the shade of a thbrack tree, swapping tales and gossip.  In a short while others drifted over to sit with them, and the talk turned to the skills and abilities they had, separate and shared.  Ivine and White Flower made a nest for themselves of the dried needles at the base of the tree and curled up close to Burl and Trodwen.  Even Leafmold joined them, assuring all that Tevane was resting peacefully, and at any rate could be seen easily enough from where they were if he should need help.

It was a peaceful sort of day.  Drifts of bright sun wove down through the leafy canopy and played in the clearing, shifting into a new dance with every slight breeze.  They could hear birds and toads-through-the-dry-leaves-rustle.  Even the worms tunneling through the dirt, leaving their casting to enrich the soil added their songs to the day.  The urgency to get to the city hung suspended like a drop of moisture caught in a spinner’s web.  If they could go nowhere until Tevane was fit, they may as well relax and enjoy the moment.

 

 

“Mage Ement,” Ivine asked after a time of contemplative silence, “how do you keep the noise the Giants make from hurting your ears?  Will there be fungus there with which we can stop up our ears?”  White Flower giggled at the question, but Ement answered seriously.

“I’m heartened to see you curious about your new home, young Ivine, for the more you learn and understand the easier it will be for you to become a part of it.  Now, as to your question.  The city is a fearsome large beast with a heartbeat so thunderous and strong that it sometimes shakes you from your feet.  There are things called automobiles that are in no wise small that of themselves make a clamorous din.  And there are days that the city belches noise as if it had eaten something disagreeable.  The city is vast and she never sleeps, but ‘twixt Starshine and Dayrise she rests, just as this wood does.

There are still Giants and automobiles about, but not so many.  This is when we city Halftje go about our business, for the most part.  If we must go out after Dayrise, we do what woodlanders do when they are about at night-we move swiftly and silently, and we wear clothing that helps us to blend in.  Ah, and, of course, we plug our ears.  I myself have a magnificent set of plugs carved from a curious piece of trash I found in a back alley.  Light it was, though big.  Took me most of the darking hours to get it home.  Worth it though-wonderful plugs, block most of the noise.  Smell a bit though, musty and sourish.”  He wrinkled his nose, at which they all laughed.  “Probably enough left to carve all of you plugs.  It will be my gift to you.”

After murmured thanks all around, Betany, Merwyn and Jatoc’s other daughter asked something that had them all puzzled.  “Mages,” she said. “why is it that not all our speech is the same, but that we can mostly understand the Giants way of speaking?”

“It is part of our history, our shared history, young Betany.  We know that, long ago we rode the shoulders of Giants and whispered in their ears.  Our words were ones of common use then, we understood them, they understood us.  When we went our separate ways, some of our words changed, as did some of theirs.  So we need to learn to talk to each other all over again.”  Trodwen spoke this time, tugging at his hair and setting his pointed cap a little more comfortably on his head.  “However, we do not all speak the same common words.  The world is a bigger place than even I supposed; there are many places in it where the common words are only understood by those Halftje and Giants who live there.  Or, at least, that is the way things were.  Long ago, these places did not know the other places existed.  Now they do.  Giants travel from one land to another, they learn other languages, they eat the different foods of that place.  And some of those Halftje and Giants from far places have made their way to this, our place.  Some of these of our cousins, we don’t understand in their speech, so we use signs and pictures to talk.”

It all sounded very confusing, and Betany said so.

“Bless all the living creatures, it is a muddle, but we get by, and so will you,” Ement answered.

Burl had picked up a stick and was scratching signs in the needles under the tree, as if he’d already met some of these strange new Halftje and wanted to pass the time in a conversation that had no same tongue.

But...

“Where will we live?”

“Why, anywhere you want.  There are many of us who live in the Giant’s houses, in the very bottommost levels, in the darkest corners.  Some live in the spaces between walls, though that would be too cramped an abode for me.  Some live in the big boxes, some live in the highest places in a house, where the rooftop touches the sky.  That is where I live and you are welcome to join me.  It would be good to keep you close while you are still learning.”

Trodwen’s mouth gaped open.  THIS was shy Ement, who used few words and could rarely look directly at people?  Who never joined in the laughter and merriment, but seemed to be content being a solitary onlooker?  Only a small flying bzzzt seemed to notice his open mouth.  He coughed, then swallowed.  The bzzzt tickled as it went down.

“However”. Ement was saying, “there ARE greenswards in the city, where trees grow, with places made by birds then abandoned.  Such places, I am told, can be made snug and warm, even in the time of the cold white.  Do not worry, my friends, you will have a home, and soon it will be as familiar to you as my own now is to me.”

“Mage, will your wife mind you bringing us unasked to your home?”  Merwyn and Neatha had come to join the group, Neatha settling herself on Cuen’s lap and stretching her legs out atop his, Merwyn sitting beside Jatoc, her head cushioned on his shoulder.

“I have no wife to mind,” Ement said brusquely, old hurt flickering in his faded blue eyes.  “I was to have been married, but my heart’s beat could not find it in herself to leave the Aerie.  We were so young, but had been together forever it seemed.  I would not have thought that anything could part us.  Ai:lin her name was: Ai:lin the Whispering Wind they called her, so kind and gentle and fair was she.”  He could call her face to mind as if he had seen her only a Dayrise past, alive with delight as she soared on the back of a Skyreigh in the tumbling wind, arms outstretched to embrace the clouds, her laugh silvery, unafraid, exultant, alive, and the ache in his heart that never quite went away quickened to a sharp pang.  In his mind’s eye, she was still young and beautiful, as though the passage of years would not dare to affect her.

“Wah,” he said, catching sight of their sympathetic faces, “it was all a long time ago and mostly forgotten.”

They knew it wasn’t.  Merwyn and Jatoc clasped hands, Burl and White Flower reached to hold each other and Trodwen thought of his Hani, seamed face and smiling eyes who berated him for tracking forest dirt unto her newly cleaned floors and scolded him for taking so much upon himself while carefully packing hugs for him to take out like a warm sweet smelling shirt on days when he was down.

Cuen broke the somber mood, asking if they had brought any music makers with them.  Soon the clearing rang with the sounds of water drums, reed pipes, songs and laughter.

Ement was quiet, sitting with his back against the bole of the tree, wishing his heart were not so laden with memories of his lost love.

Ah, he chided himself; you must think strong positive thoughts.  City living was not for the weak or faint of heart.  Young Ivine and her family needed him to be there for them, to guide them through the days to come until they could make their own way.  They would be good for him too.  There had been little of laughter and music in his mostly solitary life.  He hoped they would choose to make his home theirs.  They had as much to teach him as to learn from him. 

Sitting a little straighter, he clapped his hands to the beat of the drum.

Tevane, crouched in the shadows at the side of the cote, watched the merrymaking and felt a great abysmal nothingness in the center of his being.

 

CHAPTER VII

 

“I am much better,” Tevane snapped at Burl, “and I do not need nursemaiding as though I were a child.  I do not welcome your interference or your resentment at having to be away from the others of your kin.  You act as if I had an illness that there was no hope for, save that you might catch it.  I am well, I say.  Go back to your FAMILY.”  He sneered the last, jerking his head towards the larger cote where the rest were settling in for the night.  Burl shrugged his shoulders.  It was not true that he was resentful, nor that he thought Tevane’s fever-bite was catching.  What was true was that Tevane did seem to be mostly recovered.  He now ate what the rest of them ate, spurning the healing broths Burl’s Muta made.  He even looked after his own personal needs, making his way to and from the waste hole without help, though the journey left him weak and trembly for a while.  Hopefully, this meant that they would all soon be able to resume their journey.  Tevane still had not said anything about his plans, or what he was doing in this part of the wood, but Trodwen and Ement thought that probably, once he was well enough, Tevane would go his own way.

Burl, who would willingly have stayed, would not force his company on a Tevane who was more prickly than a stickle plant.  Wishing Tevane a peaceful good night, Burl joined the others just as drops of rain started to fall.

They woke to gloomy greylight, more Nightclose than Dayrise.  Water thumped and splashed on the broad overlapping leaves that formed the roof of the cote and ran in a steady stream from the edges of the roof, creating a muzzy curtain that made it seem as if they hadn’t yet wiped the sleep from their eyes.  The firepit was a mess of soggy ash and half-burned wood that made a stink in the air like something dead and rotting.  No fire food this morning, nor tea, but they could eat the dried goods Hani had packed- shrooms and young wood fern, and drink the water that tumbled down in front of them.

One thing was certain-they would not be traveling anywhere until the skies dried out.  Squirrels did not like to get wet.  Nor did Halftje, unless it was in a clear sun warmed pool, or inside during the Cold White in a tub of steaming scented water.

Necessary trips to relieve themselves had to be made, and this they took in turns, lofting a sleep skin turned the wrong way out to keep them dry.  Leafmold was the third to go, and he made a detour to Tevane’s cote on his way back, dancing barefoot around the puddles.

“He’s gone, Mages!  Muta, Da, Tevane has gone!”  Leafmold ran into the sleep cote, briefly pausing to shake the rain off the sleep skin before passing it to Betany.  She dashed off, her need urgent.  The others made the short trip to the side-by cote and stood looking in, getting drenched.

Tevane was gone.  Without so much as a ‘fare well’ or a ‘taks to you all’ thought Trodwen  At least he’d left the place neat.  The sleep skin was folded on top of the pallet, which had been straightened from sleep disarray.  The gourd light, safely out and cold had been placed at the bottom of the pallet.

“Fare you well, young Tevane,” merwyn said now.  “Wherever your plans take you, no matter the company you keep, may light and the right of things keep you safe.”  They all sent their own good thoughts into the air.  Then Trodwen rubbed his hands together, pushing up the sodden sleeves of his robe impatiently.  They had all done their best for the lad.  The choice to leave had been his, and although Trodwen could wish that he hadn’t crept off like a night-peeper at sun’s light, there was good news to be had.  The empty cote would provide them a little stretch room for as long as the water-laden skies kept them here.

“Let’s move another pallet in here, then get out of this wet before we all become drowned soil diggers!”

The rain kept up for the next three Dayrises.  At night they were not quite cozy.  The rain kept out but damp crept in, chilling their bones and dragging out their energy to dissipate in the mists.  Clothing was damp; bedding was damp offering no comfort to aching bones that were tired from lack of activity.  The water drums and reed pipes reacted badly; refusing to hold a tune, so there was no music.  They couldn’t play games and no one felt like talking story.  Merwyn broke two combs that had been painstakingly carved from the backbone of a dead fish when she tried to comb the snarly frizz that had become Betany’s hair.

This rain, instead of being the clean life-giving gift they had all revered felt wrong; greasy, but at the same time as if it would burn their skin if they stayed out in it overlong

“This,” said Ement as he and Trodwen sat in the doorway chewing Greenleaf to clean their teeth and renew their breath, “is what rain in the city is like.  All the time.”

The night of the third rain, Ivine Dreamed again, an event unheard of as far back as either Trodwen or Ement could remember.

 

Ement’s heart hurt.  Oh, not that there was anything wrong with him.  He was old, yes.  Older than he cared to remember, but he was strong and of good health.  Yet his heart was sore and his mind troubled.  He fiddled with the foot loop on the burthen carrier, tightening it just a bit so the sleep rolls would stay evenly distributed.  The others were working on similar tasks.  Casting a quick look around, Ement saw frowing faces and tight pulled lips.  Doubtless the heartache he felt was theirs as well.

FLET!  He had vowed to help young Ivine and her family, but how, now, was he to keep that promise?  He couldn’t put the from picture out of his mind-great tears rolling down Merwyn’s face as she’d stood with arms wrapped protectively around her youngest.

“I can’t help it, Da, Muti. I didn’t ASK to Dream again.”

“Ivine.  Little Bright Leaf.  NO-one has ever Dream’t twice. Have they, Trodwen?

Jatoc had wrung his hands as he’d appealed to his lifefriend.  “Surely this Dream was not a portent?”  The fear on Jatoc’s face had been reflected throughout the small camp.  Trodwen had taken his time answering.  A wonder his braid had not torn loose, the way his hands had twisted, twisted, twisted.

“No,” he’s said, finally,” but, because I cannot recall such an event in our history does not mean that this Dream is any less real than Ivine’s first.  We know there is urgency to the need in the world.  Perhaps Ivine is the first of a New Order.  I say,” as he smiled reassuringly at them all, “that we are strong and not so old that we cannot learn new ways.”

That had been that.  They had all turned to necessary tasks, left in the silence to think their own thoughts.

No one had had a stomach fit for breakfast, and this new Dream meant that they must move even faster, so they had all taken handsful of nuts and dried berries for their side pouches.

Ement gave the strap he was holding one last tug, then loosened it immediately as the squirrel jumped and chittered in protest.  “Sorry, sorry,” he muttered, soothing it with a stroke of his gnarled fingers.

 

 

 

What kind of life awaited her, Ivine mused as they loped along.  On the outside, she was calm.  Had to be calm.  Inside, her heart quailed and her spirit felt small.  Used up.  They had not even arrived at the first stop on their journey, and she had broken her parents hearts.  Again.  Now she had to make them all believe she was strong.  Because she hadn’t shared all of her Dream.

Where she was going, she had to go alone.

 

 

“We should camp here for the night.”

They were at the farthest dip of the woods, the furthest any of them save Trodwen and Ement, had ever been.  They all felt it-the sense of un-rightness and the not-known.  Trodwen, for all that he’d been here before was as nervous as the rest, staring out over the expanse of long sere grasses they would be wading through in the days to come.  There were dangers in the long stalks, more at night than in light of day. Not a bad thing, to spend one last night here on the edge of the familiar.

“I’m hungry,” he said, rubbing his hands together briskly before clambering off the squirrel.  He fished in his pouch for a nut to reward the little beast before setting it free.  The others slowly did the same, dragging off sacks and harnesses then watching their mounts scamper up nearby trees.

The fields of Giants were no place for woodland creatures.

 

“Mage, I am that tired, I don’t know as I can take another step.

Little wonder, Trodwen thought, his gaze traveling from where Merwyn’s hand rested on his arm up to her careworn face.  Two Dayrises past, they had packed all their goods onto two pull-alongs, hastily constructed from the dry grasses, agreeing as a group that it would be easier to walk the rest of the way than to try and call strange beasts to carry them.  Ement said that he always walked the field  Three Dayrises, he figured, would take them to the other side and his home nearby.  Now Ement, hearing Merwyn, stopped, looking back at Trodwen.

“Perhaps we should have called upon a few rats to ease our passage,” he shrugged.  “I have only ever come this way in the mid-time of Things Growing, when the grasses were soft and easily bent, and the soil dry.”

New growth had not yet sprouted, and the dry grass had wicked sharp edges that caught in their hair and clothing, often cutting through unprotected skin.  Thanks to the recent rains, the ground beneath their feet was wet and moggly, making it difficult to move the pull-alongs, even with two people togged to harness made of carrier straps pulling and one pushing from behind. Often crawlers and biting fliers feasted on the blood of fresh cuts.  None of them had washed or changed clothes.  Little point, less water.  They were all coated with muck.  They all smelled and they were all bone weary

Nodding his head, Yrodwen patted Merwyn’s hand.  “I think we will rest here the night,” he said.

 

 

 

A short distance behind them, Sylanna laughed soundlessly at the little party making camp.  Had they been wiser, they’d have done what she had done, and kept their pack animals.  SHE was almost as fresh as the day the had started out.  She’d only encountered two problems.  One was keeping farther behind than she had liked, so the others would not sense that her animals were out of place here.  It was hard, keeping the rats from moving so swiftly that they overtook the ragged band ahead of her.  Her other problem was an increasingly sullen Tevane, who seemed to think that Sylanna should have nursed his injuries herself.  She had yet to convince the quisling that dumping him in a camp with healers had been for his own good.  Stupid child.  Stubborn child-he also refused to go near the big rat again, so it was left to her to unload both animals and tether them together so they wouldn’t stray at night.

She gripped Tevane’s shoulder as he scuttled past, motioning him to start carefully cutting grasses.  Enough of them, piled high and covered with voleskin would keep her comfortable and warm through to Dayrise.  A grievance, to be sure, that she could not risk a fire for a hot meal, but that was the way it was.

 

Ement raised his head, sniffing the air.  Something smelled bad.  Unnatural.  The short hairs on the back of his neck rose in protest of something that he could not see but that he sensed meant them harm.

He would be glad to get home.

 

 

“Ooh!

“How did you do that?”

“Can you teach us, Burl?”

“I don’t know.”  Burl scratched his head, puzzled.  He was a bit taller than the rest of his kin and more solid than slender.  More stolid as well, given more to physical activity than deep thought.  His colouring and the way he lived his life in service to others marked him as part of the clan, but, of them all, Burl had had the hardest time with the exercises pressed on them by the Old Woman.  Oh, he had practiced conscientiously.  He had tried his hardest.  Without a glimmer of success.

Until now.

“I don’t know,” he repeated, leaning back on his sleep pad.  He’d made each of them a similar pad from the tough grasses, going far afield, cutting down three or four stems at a time so as not to leave a large bald patch.  “I was just thinking that even though we can’t have a hot meal because we cannot safely light a fire or the lanterns in all this dry grass, it’d be nice to have a wee bit of light.  Then THEY showed up.”

THEY were a small swarm of glowbugs, floating mainly above Burl’s head, but one or two hovered over each person.  When Merwyn scrambled up with a sudden need to use the pit Burl had dug a short distance away, the insects hovering over her head went with her.

“Thank you, son,” she laughed.

I didn’t know we even had glowbugs around here.  I’ve never seen any.  Come to that though, I’ve always come through in the time of wet, and could use a greasevine wick and lamp.”  Ement chewed thoughtfully on a grass stem as he watched the little creatures circle.  They gave off a brighter light than he would have imagined possible for their tiny size.

“Well” Burl almost whispered, not wanting his usual booming bass voice to scare theit light source away, “I wasn’t trying to do anything, really; I just didn’t want us sitting in the dark.  It feels odd, do you know?  The dark here?”  Burl looked straight at the two mages as he spoke, his honest face creased in concern.

“I do know,” Ement answered.  Trodwen nodded gravely.

The rest of the group had obviously missed the overtones of the conversation.  They clamored all at once.

“Teach me, Burl, teach me!”

 

 

 

Ivine lay a little apart from the others, stroking the softness of the time-scarred skin wrapping her from head to toe against the chill in the air.  How sad that something so beautiful had had to die so that she could be warm.  To be sure, it was only when the creature died that the harvested and preserved the hide.  Halftje never killed anything if they could help it, but they never wasted anything, either.  She squirmed, trying to get comfortable and lure sleep to her, but her mind was too full to let her tired body settle.  If she couldn’t save woodland creatures from dying of sickness or grave hurt or the wear and tear of time, how could she, by herself, hope to save the rootless souls, Halftje and Giant, who dwelt in the bowels of the city?  She was not dismayed at the delays caused by the land they traveled through.  Most of her being hoped they would never reach the first destination.  That they would meet some obstacle that would force them to turn back.  Then she felt guilty for such unworthy thoughts.  This was who she was.  This was her heritage; her life’s work about to begin.  She must trust the Spirits to guide her.

Ivine sighed quietly and rolled onto her back, peering through the grasses high above her to catch a glimpse of the night stars.  She wondered if the Giants had a name for the crushing weight that lay on her chest.

 

Jatoc and Merwyn lay cuddled together, their hearts, after so long a time together, beating in unison; hearts that, though sore and troubled earlier, had let go their anxiety and had put their trust in the Universe to provide

 

Betany, Leafmold, Burl and White Flower slept close to each other, having arranged their bedding in a semi-circle.  Where they lay, Burl and White Flower’s fingers touched.  Whatever their dreams, they both smiled.

 

 

Some distance away, Tevane lay curled up on a pile of prickly grasses, shivering.  The big rat had trampled his sleep fur when T’char pulled it from the pack.  It was muddy and wet now, but the rat lay on it quite comfortably.  Tevane was miserable and cold, while, just over there, his T’char was wrapped, snug and warm, in TWO sleep furs.

Would it, he wondered, have hurt her to share?

 

Sylanna, oblivious, snored lightly, the two girdle snakes coiled resentfully by her head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Well, Ement puffed, we are here.  This is my home and I bid you all ‘well come’.”

They were all panting, having climbed up two of what the Mage called ‘a flight of stairs’.  They were all very puzzled-there’d been no ‘flight, no birds involved at all.  One ‘flight’, the smaller one, was outside.  The men had all hopped or been pushed up, one cold hard stone at a time.  The women had passed up packs and bedding before being hauled up by the men.  Everyone had been breathing hard by the end of the first ‘stair’ but there had been a handful of fingers more to go!  At the end, they had passed as quietly as possible through what Ement had called a ‘cat door’.

What was a cat?

A pet, Ement gasped.

What is a pet?

Ement had not the breath to answer.

No starshine lit the last portion of their journey, for all they had made it in the depths of night.  No stars shone in the city.  They’d had no gourd light either; it had not been necessary, for there were strange orbs that hung low in the sky, emitting a clouded light.  As well, sometimes there had been flashing lights that passed quickly with a whoosh and a roar.

At least the noise stopped once they were all inside.  Well, not really.  The inside noises were different and a bit quieter.  Still, no one removed the bits of leaves they had used to plug their ears.

“How much further, Mage?”  White Flower whispered.  Ement couldn’t have heard, must have just guessed at her words, because he clucked encouragement and swept a hand out and up.

And up.  And up,

They’d made it finally.  Up the impossible stairs, down a long dark expanse, under a great large THING that cast an even darker shadow at the end of the long dark.  Then through a hole.  Ement dug the leaf bits out of his ears.  The rest did the same, in time to hear him say

“Again, I bid you all Well Come!”

 

 

It was such a vast space.  If they twisted and craned their necks, they could see the top end of the room far above.  There were yawning areas empty of anything, then places piled high with Giant’s THINGS.  Tables and chairs. Dishes, clothing.  Something called a ‘dresser’, though they saw no dresses.

There was a wonder like nothing they had ever seen, a big house, with Halftje-sized rooms!

“It is called a ‘dollhouse,” Ement explained as they crept through, cautiously exploring.  “A thing the Giant’s girl-child played with when she was young.  With this”.  He gestured to a thing lying on the floor.  A thing that looked like a Halftje, only smaller.  “No,” he assured Merwyn, “it never was alive, it is merely a plaything made in a Giant’s image.  They call it a ‘doll.  I have used some of the chairs in my own home.  Not too many; they are hard and no wise comfortable!”

Jatoc and Merwyn, after exploring as much as their tired bodies allowed, made a home for themselves a short distance from Ement’s.  Trodwen elected to stay with his fellow Mage, to give the little family as much time to spend with Ivine as possible, but also to learn more before he had to face the journey home alone.  Both Mages spent time with Ivine, teaching her what they could before she went to the place-of-no-hope in the deepest part of the city.

When the foodstuffs they had brought with them ran out, Ement introduced them to Chloe.

“This is a cat?!” Betany’s mouth was agape; her eyes round with wonder.  The others hung back a bit, but Betany sidled up to stand beside Ement.  “Why, she is almost as big as a forest robber and almost the same colour!  What’s that strange noise she makes?  It is very loud.  I’m glad to have stopped up my ears!”  True to his word, Ement had carved them all earplug, using a piece of silvery sharp to carefully shape each piece. Betany’s hand stretched out to touch a paw.

 

“She is very soft, though not like a robber at all.”

The rest watched, fascinated, as her tiny hand almost disappeared in the fur, the slowly moved back and forth.  The loud noise grew louder; the cat’s amber eyes closed to mere slits as the others came up to stroke any part they could reach.

:Chloe is my friend.  The noise she makes tells me she is happy.  She is also,”  here he grinned at the little group, “the best way I have found to get around in the Giant’s house,  Now, who wants to come with me to get some food?”

 

 

“Tis a magic thing, is it not?” Merwyn breathed in awe.  “How does it work?  What makes it so cold?  It is almost as cold as the Cold White, but there is no White!  Oh,” she laughed nervously, wringing her woven red forage bag in trembling hands.  So far, she had put nothing in it, leaving all the gathering to Ement and Betany.

Everything was so strange, from clambering aboard Chloe with two forage bags criss-crossed over her chest, to rumple-bumping swiftly down the stairs and down a long expanse into a room whose clickings and hummings made her ears hurt, even stopped up.  It was as though every forest insect she had ever met was singing out to her all at once.  She hadn’t been prepared at all when the cat, at a nudge from Ement, leapt from the floor to a chair, to a table, to a ledge of some kind with dizzying speed.  She might have tumbled off if Betany hadn’t grabbed her from behind.  Now her stomach quivered and rippled inside, churning like pond water in a storm.  Betany had to prise her fingers from the cat’s fur.  Merwyn could let go only for as long as it took her daughter to get the bags from her.  Betany patted Merwyn on a quaking shoulder, then slid off the cat to patter after Ement, leaving Merwyn alone.

A window above the ledge let in light from one of the strange globe things outside.  Ement had told them what it was called, but, at the moment, the word lay jumbled with many others in a word puzzle that she just couldn’t sort.  Merwyn sat there as the others put things in the bags.  Sat there as they scrambled on.  Sat there as the cat, not bothering with the table, jumped to the floor. Sat there waiting for her heart to start beating again, while Ement used what he called his ‘grapple’, attached to a length of white twine, to open a huge box that stood on the floor.  It sparkled silver in the strange light.  “Ooh,” she breathed at the gush of cold

Bethany hesitated only a beat before climbing after Ement, using the same hand and toe holds he did.  Ement had his piece of silvery sharp with him and used it t cut a sliver of this, a bit of that, putting what he gathered in his own forage bag, which he had made of the same white twine tied to his grapple, before passing things to Bethany to stow.

Chloe helped, keeping her paw on the white twine, holding it tight to keep the door from closing.

Only Merwyn did nothing.

Her cowardice shamed her.

*****

 

“This is called a grape,” Ement said, cutting into a roundish green thing with his silvery sharp.  When they all had a piece, he gestured again.  “This, the Giants call broccoli.  THAT is A-mond, this is ham.”  There was a feast spread out, foods that none but Ement had ever seen before, laid out on familiar acorn-cap plates.  The food, though strange, could all be eaten without cooking, a fact they all appreciated.  Well, except for the ham, which Ement assured them was already cooked.  A good thing, Leafmold thought, because he didn’t see how they could ever have a fire here.  For one thing, there was no firepit, nor was there a smokehole.  He liked the idea of foraging every day, though.  Their new home was fine, he would get used to it in time, but there just wasn’t that much to do.

Leafmold was young.  He wanted to be going.  To be doing.  Already, his muscles were softening, although he went three times a night to fetch water in the funny little buckets Mage Ement called thimbals, with their even funnier woven twine handles that twisted ‘round the buckets’ tops.

There was a lot of that twine in the odd room where he went to get the water-he’d used some of it himself to make rops to lower the buckets down from the big shiny thing that steadily dripped.  The water tasted different, not good like stream water fresh-cupped in his hands, or even like the melted cold white they relied on in thelast and first Turns of the Mark.  Ha!  Leafmold would ask the Mage if he could go with him to get the food.  Save Muti from going again.  She didn’t want to do it, he knew.  She was still quaking.

“Da, Muti, will we make music after we eat?”, he asked.  Leafmold was pleased to see his Muti smile.

*****

 

Downstairs, Mrs. Owen sat up in bed, poking her husband till he woke.

“What is that noise?  Sounds like singing.  Can’t you hear it?”

Mr. Owens propped himself up groggily on an elbow, listening hard.  “Mice,” he grunted, then flopped back down.

“MICE SING?”

“’Course they do, honey.  Go back to sleep.”

********

 

 

 

 

“Sorry, T’Char.”  Cautiously, Tevane approached her.  “This was all I could find.”  He handed the podsilk bag to her with a shaking hand.  Sylanna snatched it, upending it over the sleepfur she crouched on.  Two dead beetles.  Leaves and white flower buds from the big tree in the Giant’s  field.  Again.  She growled, baring her teeth at her pupil, then snatched a beetle, quickly stripping it’s legs and shell, sniffing it thoroughly to make sure it was freshly dead before biting into it.  She kicked the other one towards Tevane but gathered the leaves and buds to her.  If the quisling wanted more, let him go out into the wind and rain and get it.  Wasn’t like he had to climb the tree after all.  He just gathered the winds’ work off the ground.

Sylanna was not pleased.  Both rats and snakes had deserted her as she lay asleep in the sedge their first night in the city and would not come back.  She had not been able to attract any new creatures to her bidding, though she understood not how they could be so resistant to her great power.  She and her useless pupil had been forced to carry what they could and had had to scurry to stay on Trodwen’s trail.  Now they lived in the dark under the first set of ‘stairs’ (as she had heard Ement call them.)  She and Tevane had watched from a safe distance the little group’s ridiculous effort to get up those stairs.  Watched as they disappeared.  They had not come out again.  No matter.  She had found a hole in the wood around the stairs; there, she and Tevane had set up their belongings.  There were gaps that let the rain in.  Skittery critters that ignored her call.  She was cold and hungry.  Still, no matter.  Sylanna would stay here.  Soon, Ivine would have to leave.  Sylanna had heard enough of the little group’s conversations to understand that it was Ivine who would lead Sylanna where she needed to be.

Then her work would begin.

 

 

CHAPTER IX

 

Ivine shouldered her small pack quietly.  Not much in it. Food to last a few Dayrises; a change of clothing.  Some of Muti’s healing balms.  A pair of voleskin slippers with very thick soles that White Flower had sewed warmed her feet.  Her squirrel skin robe was rolled and tied to the pack.  Plugs firmly in her ears.

She was ready.  The last while had been spent learning-how to forage in the city.  Practicing the healing arts.  Learning how to hide.  How to protect herself.  How to call the strange city creatures to her.

Time to go.

She grabbed handsful of the cat’s hair.  Hoisted herself up and let Chloe carry her down the stairs while cold tears of loneliness and heartbreak rolled down her cheeks.

Night had just nudged itself firmly into position.  No stars, never any stars to see in this city, but plenty of light.  Still, Ivine kept to the shadows as much as possible.  Ement had pointed her in the direction she must go, even, on other nights, walking part of the distance with her as they mapped her path.  For the exercise, the Mage had said, but mostly, Ivine knew, so that she would gain confidence walking the cold stone way.

It was quiet, the air was warm.  Why then was she shivering?  Why was a tilch of fear tickling through her, making her feel like untolds of ants were racing from the top of her head to the ends of her toes?  She HAD to be brave!  Surely none of the Mages had ever felt like they wanted to bury their Calling in the dirt and leave it to freeze  until it was dead.  If everyone were as fearful as she, why, there would be no healers, no Mages.  It was wrong to question her life path when the Dreams had been so clear.  Yet she could not help how she felt.  All very well for her to show brave when relating her Dreams to everyone.  Well for her to show so very brave on the journey.  She had fooled the others but could not lie to herself, not when her innards shook like a half-cooked pan of redbreast eggs.

A slight vibration at her feet had Ivine looking down at the same time as she eased a plug part way out of one ear.  A night chirruper sat on her slipper, rubbing its back legs together in a cheerful song.

“Well, Little Chirrup, you don’t seem bothered by the din that is assaulting my ears.”The whoose and clank of the big metal animals on the wide-wide-wide cold path to the side of her was frightening.  However long she lived, Ivine thought that she would never get used to these monsters. It wasn’t just the noise.  Their huge eyes were an unblinking scary burn as they swept past, seeming to be flying without wings.  Oh, yes, Mage Ement had warned her about these things, to stay away from their path, just as he had taught her to become nearly invisible, dodging into shadows to avoid the Giant’s big feet that could smoosh a Halftje flat and not even notice.

Ivine knelt down so that she was at eye level with the little creature.  It’s antennae quivered as it looked at her almost expectantly, she thought, then shook her head at her own whimsy.  “Are you here to keep me company and show me the way?” she whispered softly, then was knocked back on her heels in surprise when it’s antennae bobbled fiercely, for all the worlds like it was nodding.  The Chirrup turned then, hopping one pace, then two, before turning back to Ivine and waiting.

THIS was new.  Slowly, so as not to startle the little thing, Ivine rose to her feet.  “All right.  If you are willing to lead, I will follow.”

They weren’t talking, not exactly.  She didn’t understand the Little Chirrup the way she understood her woodland friends, but, if the Mages were right, she would, in time.  In the meantime, having company on the journey would be wonderful. 

Ivine settled her pack firmly and squared her shoulders.  “One foot in front of the other.  One step at a time.”

 

The earplug went back in.

“So. Little Chirrup, do you have a name that you would share with me?”

********

 

In the deep shadows, Sylanna and Tevane followed.

**********

 

Not too far behind Tevane and his T’Char, another small figure stood and watched, hands on hips, contemplating.

 

 

s

Trodwen did not want to go out again tonight.  The wind was colder than it should have been at this, the three quarter Turn of the Mark, and it would bite cruelly through his snakeskin cloak.  He knew this because he had just come home through a freezing downpour, and the wind had buffeted him every step of the way.  His boots, also tanned snakeskin, and thus supposed to be waterproof, were soaked clear through to his toes.  His hair and long beard dripped icy puddles on to the clean floor.  The very thought of wading out again into such wicked weather made him shiver.

But it had to be done.  On his return from meeting with the other Mages and Guild Masters, Hani, his wife, had informed him that Merwyn and Jatoc's youngest had Dreamed.  Not a happy Dream.  As a Mage, and the oldest member of New Dawn Guild, it was Trodwen's duty to verify the Dream and to help the family with the decisions they would have to make.  No time to even discuss with Hani the disturbing findings of the Council.

No help for it, then.  Trodwen snugged the last walnut toggle on his cloak closed, pulled his soggy hat down over the still-red tips of his ears and squelched to the door of the little house under the big oak.  At least he wouldn't have to walk.  Hani, bless her, had persuaded a large grey squirrel to carry him.

It was full dark, with no stars to guide them, so Trodwen carried a candle lantern made from a brathelm gourd with a coiled greasevine wick.  He mounted the squirrel, scrunching his robe up almost to mid-waist in order to be able to seat himself firmly on the squirrel's short back, gripping its wet furry hide with his bare legs.  Hani tossed him two acorns, which he placed in the pouch hanging at his side.  Trodwen concentrated on sending a picture of the way to their destination from his mind to the squirrel's, taking care to show it the shortest route.  At a further nudge from him, they were off, the squirrel's bushy tail erect in the air, it's paws pushing down into the wet muck of the path, jarring Trodwen with every leap.

At the door of Jatoc and Merwyn's hollow log house, Trodwen thanked the squirrel with a nut, prodding him gently with a suggestion to return at dayrise and take him home again.

Inside, things were worse than he'd feared.  Across a hard packed dirt floor scattered with tree bark mats, Merwyn was slumped over an oak log table, head cupped in her hands, crying.  Jatoc sat across from her, thin lips pressed so tightly together that they almost disappeared.  To anyone not knowing him, Jatoc looked fierce, black brows almost meeting in the middle of his frown.  To Trodwen, who had called the man friend for almost more Turns than he could count, it looked as if Jatoc was only just holding it together for the sake of his wife.  Jatoc looked as if he, to, wanted to sob.  The house, usually bright with the light of  gleemers and full of the echoes of joyous laughter, was, this night, as dark and heavy as the outside weather.  There was no welcome here. Of their older children, Betany, Leafmold and Burl, there was no sign, but Ivine, their youngest, and the cause of the tension that rested  in the room like a bird with a broken wing, squatted before the fire in the small pothearth.

"It's no good, Da," she sighed, small brown hands twisting the cord that lowered pots onto the cooking surface, "no use wishing it'd never happened.  I Dreamed what I Dreamed.  I can't un-Dream, not even for you and Muta.  I only wish I could!"

"But, Ivine, surely no-one..." "Ahem."  Trodwen cleared his throat loudly, making the three jump."I did knock, but, with the storm, you know."  He waved vaguely at the door before crossing to sit at the table beside Merwyn, taking her cold hand into his even colder one.  Jatoc started to rise, the sling back chair he had fashioned by hand scraping against the floor, but Trodwen motioned him back down.  Ivine, however, got up and poured him a cup of hot acorn tea, which Trodwen took gratefully letting the warmth from the old clay mug flirt with his chilled fingers.

"Now, then, young lady.  I hear you have Dreamed.  Please, sit and tell me."

Jatoc reached across the table to Merwyn when she sobbed even harder . Difficult to believe such a large noise could come from such a dainty little body, but Trodwen didn't begrudge her one tear.  If the little Hani had told him was true, then all of their lives would be changed this night.  The four of them-Hani, Merwyn, Jatoc and he had grown up in this wood together, had laughed and run, had learned their craft together, raised their children together, made music often, in this very room.  Now, in the blink of an eye that was all a portentous Dream took to spill into the mind it was meant for, everything would change.

Ivine eased herself into the chair beside her father, directly across from Trodwen.  She frowned, twisting her lips and scrunching up her forehead, not so much in anger as puzzlement, Trodwen thought.  In the brown eyes that were slightly slanted and two shades lighter than her skin, there was sad resignation.  Those eyes looked directly at him as she spoke. "Where to start, Mage?" Her voice, soft as spring rain on a newly born leaf was not hesitant, Trodwen was glad to note.  Hesitation could not be a trait of one who Dreamed.  "I didn't think I would, you know.  Dream.  I mean, I am kind of old, and, well, none of the others have." Ivine was right.  Usually, Dreams came before one reached the TENMARK although those who Dreamed, if their Dreams were to lead them away from all that was familiar, would not be expected to take up their new calling until they reached the age of consent.  Ivine had already passed fifteen full Marks.  Add to that the fact that no one else in her family had Dreamed, and it was all very strange.  The need  wherever she would go must be very great.  What was happening here tonight was quite probably connected to the strange patterns that had been emerging for so long.  His hours in the council chamber this endless day passed had been full of strange tales, from all the Guilds stretching the land, and even some from the few attendees from over the water.  Trodwen said nothing, simply stroked his beard with gnarled fingers and encouraged her with kind eyes to continue.

"Well, in my Dream, my feet were sore.  I looked down and saw that I wasn't walking a familiar woodland path.  The dirt I was on was grey and hard.  And so cold.  My feet are never cold in my voleskin boots. Then I saw that I wasn't wearing my old boots, nor any article of clothing I knew. I looked up then, and there was no tree canopy.  No blue sky or sun slanting down so comfortingly through branches, only a grey expanse that mirrored that on which I stood.  The smell of a thousand dirty fires in my nose, only no flame or smoke to be seen.  It was like someone had passed a thick veil of spiderwebs in front of my eyes; my eyes that have always seen clearly were that cloudy.

But, oh Mage, what I could see was enough to make my heart and soul cry.  Tall, tall, tall things that were never trees, and so big it seemed they would soon touch each other, crowding out the little space between them.  Flashing coloured lights that never in their lives were kin to sun or moonlight, bug glow or even walnut lantern light.  Giants whose strides were so great and so quick that I had to keep running and dodging so as not to be stepped on and crushed.  I mean, I have seen the giants before, walking our own woods, and each footfall they made was hard enough to shake the dishes off the shelves in our kitchen as they passed by.  And we have always known to plug our ears with fungus as they passed, because they would rupture our eardrums with their thunderous voices.  But they have only ever been one or two, and they soon pass.  In my Dream, there were too many.  And the noise, Mage!  Always noise, so deep I could drown in it, but not a thing I could understand."

Ivine pleated her cocoon silk skirt between quick fingers that shook ever so slightly.  Unthinking, she reached over, and, grabbing Trodwen's  tea, drained it with one audible gulp.  Wiping a hand over her mouth, she continued.  The tea had not helped to lubricate her throat; her voice when she continued was a raspy croak with a texture as rough as a peeling shaggybark tree.

"Then, Mage, oh then, I spied my family waiting a long way off across an expanse of the cold stuff beneath my feet.  I had brought them with me into my Dream.  I called, but they could not hear.  They were huddled together, and even from where I stood. I could see they were shaking like the leaves of the dancing trees, the ones that grow at the edge of our wood, that flash their dresses red, silver and gold in the wind.  My people are brave people, Mage, but they were terrified.  My only thought was to get to them. As I started walking, great shapes hurtled past me, and a huge black crow swooped in front of me, cackling.  What he said was 'Poor foolish Halfje, don't you know you will never go home again?' Then, Mage, I woke up." 

Silence except for Merwyn's cries, softer now, as if she was worn out from the effort of her tears.  Trodwen sat quietly for a bit, mulling over every aspect of Ivine's Dream.  The white braid in his beard seemed to pull tight as it always did when he heard something of great portent.  He resisted the urge to rub his chin and ease the strain, knowing from long experience that it wouldn't help.

This was the hardest part of his calling; harder than the death of a small creature that has been lovingly nursed for a long time.  At least in the death there was an ending of pain.  Not so with what would happen here tonight and in the days to come.

Ivine's Dream was real and could not be undreamed.  Could not be swept under the mats covering the floor.  Could not be pushed out of the house on the reeds of the little broom propped in the corner.  The loss to the wood would be palpable, like the stopping of a heartbeat.  For though they were not Mages, the family was known thoughout the wood as Healers, each in their own right.  There was no doubt in Trodwen's mind that their skills would be needed in the new place to which they would journey.  Nor did he doubt that, late to Dream or no, Ivine would make a great difference in the world.  That she would, if she lived, attain Mage status was a surety, but the cost of what would be achieved for the greater good could not be calculated over the course of a lifetime, so great was it.  Not just Ivine's life, but also the lives of her whole family would change, and not for the better. " I won't waste time with sympathy," he said now. " I won't try to interpret Ivine's Dream differently than you already have.  You knowwhat it means as well as I.  What I will do is help you to make this difficult move.  By the end of this day I will send a message to Ement of New Order Guild, asking him to find your family new lodgings.  I know this is asking a lot of you, Jatoc, Merwyn, Ivine.  And those of your family who are not here right now.  It is never an easy task to uproot yourself from what is dear and familiar.  But you are one of the strongest families in this wood.  You will be able to take that strength to the City and do what you were born to do.  Though Ivine is yet young, it seems that she may be unusual in more than just her Dreaming.  It seems to me from the urgency underneath the Dream, that Ivine may be called upon to take up her duties very soon.”

By the break of day, Trodwen had managed to calm Merwyn, talk to Ivine's siblings Betany, Leafmold and Burl, assuring himself that they understood the situation and were willing to move to the city.  None of them liked the idea; they had spent their entire lives in the wood.  It was a part of them and they a part of it.  They knew little of the city and what they had heard filled their hearts with dismay.  But, Trodwen knew, though they were filled with unease at the prospect of the move, they were Halftje.  They were proud of their sister's Calling and would support her any way they could.  So they would move as a unit.  They would use each other's strengths to help them make the transition to a totally foreign way of life.  Burl, the eldest male, was going to be married in the next Turn; his bride-to-be would also accompany them, Trodwen was sure.

Trodwen had also asked a Jay to send a message to Ement.  By next-day's end, he expected a reply.  After that, things should move quickly.  In a week, Jatoc's family would be settled into their new life.  Before they left, however, Jatoc and Merwyn, along with Ivine, would have to attend a Guild/Affinity meeting.  Trodwen had returned from the meeting with disquieting news that must be shared with all interconnected Affinity members.

The Old Woman knew; she had been first to sound the alarm, and she would preside over the coming meet. Likely she was sending word even now.  Hani probably had all the details and would fill Trodwen in as to time and place by the time he returned home.

Trodwen had journeyed years from his first Feat of Admittance to the Guild.  He was no fresh-faced Wizard; he had grown to fit his boots.  The braid of white hair woven into his beard seemed to grow fatter every day.  Though he was not as old as the Old Woman, his body and mind seemed these days to be a mass of aches and pains.  No, he was not an untried Greenling but of all the disconcerting news he had ever had to worry through, this was the worst.  The things he had heard had brought him close to despair; he now had a newfound appreciation for what Lost Souls Guild felt every day. However, he must put his personal feelings aside for the next long while; he had some small steps to take in helping Jatoc and his family with their move, and he would stay strong for them.

Trodwen’s plans, though they were well conceived, came to little.  It was long past a week before the family began their journey to the city, and Ement had come to the Wood, summoned by the Old Lady to attend a meet in the Great Hall.

 

"The world as we have known it is coming to an end.  There wasn't a whisper of sound from any of the Halftje gathered in the Hall dug deep into the hillside at the highest point of the wood.  Not only New Dawn/Forest Halftje, but also Eternity/Water and Aerie/Firmament were packed close, backed up to the earth and rock walls that were covered by tapestries woven of strong spiderweb silk, straining to see the Old Woman.  Light provided by dozen's of hand-rolled beeswax candles gave her aged features a benign glow. They didn't need to listen hard, her voice carried clear and resolute from the heartwood stump chair, with none of the infirmity normally associated with great age.  She was so ancient that no one present remembered her true name.  She was, simply, the Old Woman, a title that paid homage to her vast knowledge and wisdom.

"In the cities and forests throughout the country, meetings like ours are being held.  Our brethren over the broad waters are convening their own councils.  We have compared our findings over the last five full Turns, and we are agreed.  This planet is dying.  Unless we do something to save it, this world we live in, that we share with all the other creatures of land, water and air will cease to exist within fifty Turns."

The Old Woman sat back, hands tucked into the flowing sleeves of her white trumpet flower dress. The goldenrod pendant that was the focus of her great power emitted a steady glimmer of light, like a tenfold of glowydids were encapsulated inside, swirling around and around, their little headlights turned on to a steady beam.

The Old Woman was the Oldest of the Mages of these Affinities and Guilds.  The Old Man would be heading similar meeting for the other Guilds; across the broad waters, in every country, their counterparts were also hard at work.  Here, though, all attention was on the Old Woman of the Wood.  Her hair, under a pointed green leaf cap, was at halfway to white, signifying her great age and the fact that her personal power was almost at its peak.  Her hair, as with that of any Mage, served as the mark of her feats-the whiter the hair, the greater number of feats performed to make the world a better, safer place.  With every successful deed, a Mage's power grew.  But the use of that power also depleted a Mage's strength every time they used it after the three-quarter Mark of their lives.  When a Mage's hair turned completely white, whether after twenty Turns or two hundred, they died.  In the city, Trodwen knew, the need for their power was greater, and the Halftje living there did not live as long as their free counterparts.

No Halftje, Mage Healer or Ord, would not do everything in their power to help and heal-animals, birds, fish, plants, people.  Their race had been born into the world at so long ago a time that they themselves did not know when or where.  In everything they did, their motto was: To Preserve and Protect.  To this, their lives were sworn.

Which was why the Old Woman's words caused more than a low buzz of consternation among the normally polite people.

"WHAT??" 

"What do you mean?'

"Why"

"What can we do to stop this happening?" 

"Have we been such terrible caretakers, then?"  This last, in contrast to the babble in the Hall, was spoken quietly, each word falling, drop by drop, like night dew dripping from leaves overhead into a deep dark pool.  The effect was to hush the Hall, as the people strained to hear the words of Eleni, younger sister of Trodwen, Wizard Mage of Eternity Guild.  Eleni of the serene face and kind smile, frowned as she looked down at her last born, a baby still, needing to be cradled in his Mother's arms.  Then she locked stares with the Old Woman.

"Has this catastrophe, this forewarning of the end, come because we have failed in our duty, our purpose?"

No, Eleni Mage.  We, all the Nations of the Halftje, over hundreds of Turns, have held true to our Calling.  Even to those of us in the meanest, most dreary of cities, we have used that which nature provided. And, when there was need, helped the sick, the weak, the injured or confused, often at great peril to ourselves.

The problem is not one we caused, but it is one that will affect us more, and sooner, than those with whom we share this world.  We, none of us, were blind to this problem.  It is that we have felt helpless in the face of the very hugeness of it.  Where would we begin to undo what had been done, when every day, more and more was added to the harm?  Every time we made an effort to fix a thing that was wrong, another thing would sprout off that thing. Like the growth of a deadly disease, another part would bulge out and pop, as water that is dammed up will overflow it's banks and create new, ever faster moving streams."

"You are talking about what Mage Ement calls pollution, that creeping sickness that he says is going to turn our world from green and vibrant colour to a sickly sludgey brown clot.  I for one believe his words.  As I believe yours.  That is what will affect us, is affecting us, so that we will die before the giants of the world succumb.  It is because we are so small."  Eleni spoke again, her gaze shifting first to Trodwen and Hani, then to the masses surrounding her in the Hall, lastly to her husband Arlent.  She did not glance at her baby again, but her arms hugged his sleeping form a little more tightly to her tiny body.  "You are right, Old One.  Every day, in the streams running through the wood, we find dead fish.  Dead frogs.  Dead or dying birds, plants, bugs.  And all our powers cannot help them."  As a Water Affinity Wizard, Eleni, and to a lesser extent her people, were responsible for all the waterways-the ponds, creeks, lakes, rivers and streams, as well as the ocean that bordered this part of the world.

"Yes.  To all of you, I am talking about pollution.  We are sheltered in this wood, but even here the air is thicker and harder to breathe than it was when I came here as a child.  This is, as we have said, because the giants in the cities run their immense homes called factories.  The fuels they use to run these factories pour poisons into the air.  The wind blows as it will and the poisons are carried with the winds, to be scattered far and wide.  Some fall into the water, where the fish and frogs are affected.  There are other things that cause the pollution sickness.  Bad things from the huge houses where they make things.  The monstrous things they fold themselves into to go on a short trip that even we, with our small bodies and short legs would walk.  All these things cause the kind of pollution that no one is safe from; not the smallest of us or the largest of the giants.  Animals are born deformed and die.  The land becomes sick and cannot help green things to grow tall and nourishing.  Fish are not safe to eat.  Even the weather has changed the pattern of centuries-cold when it should be warm, dry when we pray for rains to replenish the soil.  The very fabric of the earth had changed, and the giants seem not to care."

"But...Old One," the speaker was a youngling of Trodwen's Affinity, his voice trembling as he spoke into the hush," how can we help this?  What can we do? Is this earth not our sacred trust?  How can we fail her?"

Quiet murmurs of agreement rose to a shout, heads nodding in unity.  The Old Woman raised a hand, instantly commanding silence.

"We cannot fail the earth, Arnel.  We will not fail this earth and her inhabitants. To do so means we would all die.

But we must change the way we do things.  Once, all Halftje had great power.  We did not merely nurse and nudge creatures into healing; we used our full powers to ensure health and well being for all save the most grievously ill or injured.  Once, there were many Mages who worked with the young, both Hafltje and Giant, to keep the air and the land and the waters fit for all life.

Somewhen in time, things changed.  Giants pursued dreams of making things, because they thought the things they made could make them happier than they already were.  They wanted to make things also that would make life easier for them.  Slowly, they stopped living in harmony with the earth.  They stopped working with us.  In time, we became invisible to them.  For our part, we retreated to what we thought were safe places, where we could continue to live the way we had always lived.  Because we no longer used them fully, our powers waned, until mere finger counts of Wizards were born into power.  Most of us were born with vestigial powers-to nudge, to persuade.  To nurse, rather than fully heal.

And when a Wizard comes through their Dream into their powers," here she gave a nod to Ivine, standing next to her parents and siblings, "they must go where the Dream directs them, often leaving behind that which they hold dear.  You know that they do this because they must.  Some of you ended up here because you Dreamed, and you followed the Dream to where your power was most needed.  But, even in the cities, though our people do their best, it is not from a position of strength.  None of us would forsake the wild free places if we had a choice.  Somehow, in the cities, many Halftje lose their way; they fall to illness and despair.  This too is part of the cost of the world the Giants have made."

The Old Woman paused for breath.  Every face in the Hall was raised to hers in expectation of her next pronouncement.  She did not disappoint.  Hand clasping her medallion, which now pulsed with life and power, her voice thundered with conviction.

"What we do, all that we have done to try and stem this tide of wrongness has not been enough.  We must change that which we do.  From this point on, every Mage is charged with training each person in his or her Affinity.  They will train to awaken in each person that power which is their birthright.  All of us will train to hone heart, mind, body and soul.We will hope to awaken in the Giants their old allegiance with us, so that together we can heal this world.  We will train as for war.  For make no mistake, all who are assembled here-this is a war.  And the cost of losing is death!"

More easily said than done, Trodwen thought as he stood off to one side, stroking his beard where the braid pulled taut.  The Old Woman was right; there were few full Mages left, perhaps three handfuls in the Guilds represented here.  Moreover, no one had taught these Mages their craft, they had all just come into it after Dreaming.  Yes, to be sure, they had spent lifetimes honing their various skills.  Mage had learned from Mage; Mages and Healers had exchanged knowledge as they were able, and they had all acquired valuable lore from the world around them. 

Some skills were generalized, others very specific.  Hani was no Mage, but she was an excellent Persuader, able to call small animals to her and have them do her bidding.  Trodwen’s strength lay in healing, in decision-making and in helping other Halftje see with greater clarity through the mists of confusion.  But HIS talent for talking to woodland creatures could be cradled in the cap of an acorn.  He could send simple mind pictures to a few creatures, but that was all.  Now the Old Woman was telling him and the other Mages that he must teach to others that which was inborn in him, and that he also must learn things for which he had no natural affinity.

Even as he was hoping the Old Woman had a plan, Trodwen realized that his mind had been adrift.  The Old Woman was still speaking.

“Each Mage must take the strongest Healers, Persuaders and Planners of their Affinity and work with them, to teach not just WHAT they know, but HOW they know it.  This will mean talking as well as sharing mind pictures and heart feelings.

Do not tell me that this cannot be done, for I know it can!  I am old enough to remember a time when all our knowledge was passed this way.  We have grown lax and lazy; we have let ourselves forget the old ways.  Now the need is great and we MUST remember. I will work with Trodwen and Arbec from New Dawn, Eleni from Eternity, Soren of Aerie, Chatlarra from Bridges Guild, Hae’ope of Lost Souls and Ement from New Order Guild. When each of these Mages can open their minds and channel what they know, they will be ready to work in small groups with the rest of you.”

The Old Woman paused to take a sip of water, looking over the assembled throng as she did so.  There were questions writ plainly on many faces.

“This is an arduous task I have set you,” she continued, “time is short, it is true, but we must work well before we can move fast.  Our knowledge must be strong and sure to be shared effectively.”

Now small murmurs eddied through the Hall.

The Old Woman ignored them.

“In the meantime, the rest of you are charged with carrying out your daily works.  I will also expect that each of you will make sure that your bodies are as strong and healthy as your minds.  That is all.”

“Perhaps, OLD WOMAN, that is not all.”  The tone, not the words, stopped the Old Woman rising from her chair.  There was challenge in those words, challenge and disrespect.  The rest of the Halftje realized this too, for there was a collective gasp and every head swiveled to the back of the Hall.

“It was not my intent to cut off discussion, young Tevane.  If you have something worth saying, please come forward and share with all.”

A very slight, very angry Halftje pushed his way through the crowds, coming to stand directly in front of the Old Woman.  Black hair stuck up in all directions on his head, like a frost-darkened cocklebur.  His clothing was torn and wrinkled and he smelled faintly of damp and wood smoke.  The sneer he wore was comfortable on his face, the kind of face mothers held in their minds as they warned their little ones to hush crying lest the malsprite of the woods come and drag them away.

“What should we care for the Giant’s fate?  They made their world; now let them live in it!  They do not help Haftje; they do not even acknowledge our existence!  I say, let them go their way and we will go our way.”

“I know that you were listening Tevane, so it is not that you didn’t hear.  Why don’t you understand that the fate of the Haftje is strongly linked to the fate of the Giants?  What can I offer you of words that will make sense to you?  If the Giant’s succumb to the world of pollution that they have made, you may rest assured that we Haftje will have gone long before.  Our lungs are smaller; the pollution even now affects our children.  Many of them are weaker.  They sicken who were most resilient before.  Many of them awaken at night gasping for breath.  In our woods, by our waters, even into our mountains this ugly grey sickness marches relentlessly.  There is nowhere this thread of death has not reached.  It affects us all, Tevane.  No-one is immune.”

“I think you are wrong.  Perhaps you like to stir us up because it gives you pleasure to see us scurrying like frightened voles out in the daytime sun.  Who among us has ever said ‘no’ to the grand revered Old One?”

A collective gasp ran through the Hall.  No Halftje in memory had ever spoken so rudely to another, let alone challenged a leader so.  Such blatant disrespect should not, could not possibly be allowed.  Could it?

The Old Woman appeared unruffled.  “There is one who dared challenge me.” She said, “as you well know, youngling.  She who was my sister lost the challenge and was banished for her pains, because she refused to live in harmony with the rest of us.  Is it that you now stand here to challenge me?”

Tevane ducked his head, mumbling.  He knew, as did all assembled, that a challenge was not issued or taken up lightly.  He had no wish to challenge, or to be banished.  His tongue, however, would not be stilled.

“Yes,’ he cried after a moment, lifting his head.  “You caused Sylanna to seek a life away from all she held dear and now she lives in a dank dark cave, surrounded only by her snakes.  It is not just I who say you are wrong in this matter. Sylanna has been studying the Giants.  She says the Giants must perish of this creeping death because they are closer to it than we are.  She says we, YOU, know ways that will protect us here in the forest.  Sylanna says that when the Giants are gone from the earth that the Halftje can take it over and make it our own.  She says that the world will revert to nature, much as it was hundreds of years ago.  I believe her!”

“Then I am sorry for you, young Tevane.  You hear lies and accept them as truth.  Perhaps you have thrown your lot in with the lady of snakes.  That is your choice.  You are welcome to stay and talk to any who wish to hear you, but I must go.  There is much to be done.  Good day to you all.”  The Old Woman left the Hall, the other Halftje filing out in her wake.

Tevane was left standing alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

Trodwen’s mind was bruised from mentally dueling with the Old Woman.  He was sure she derived a great deal of enjoyment from trying to project her vast store of lore into his brain.  It was like being battered by thorny branches in a gale force wind.  SHE, on the other hand, had no difficulty assimilating his information.  It was scant comfort that Eleni, Arbec and Soren fared no better.  As for Ement and those of the other, more somber Guilds, Trodwen felt strong sympathy.  Free places like Forest, Water and Sky had much in common.  Ement of Lost Souls had been heard to say that he, Hae’ope and even Chatlarra, whose Guild was charged with building bridges between the two diverse groups of Halftje, had the additional burden of trying to grasp entirely new terms of reference.  How hard it would be on Ivine and her family when they moved to the city and had to unlearn everything they knew and start fresh.  The adults, the best Mages they had, had been at this for seventeen sunrises now, camped in the big Hall, shielded from all outside interference, and still they limped along.

Oh!  There-he felt it; an itch this time, not the hurting of a rock falling on his head but a tickle that teased a little opening in Trodwen’s mind.  He held himself still as the Old Woman had counseled, taking deep solid breaths.  The tiny opening widened.  Starbursts floated in front of Trodwen’s closed eyes.  Then, a flood of knowledge, dusty, archaic, but strangely current, gushed through with such force that he staggered backward and would have fallen had his staff not been so firmly planted in the dirt.

Abruptly, the flood shut down.

“I think you have the way of it now, Mage,” the Old Woman said, rising from her stump. “That is enough for a while.  Too much knowing at one time will burn holes in your brain.  Use the rest of this day to become familiar with that which is new and how best to pass it on.  I will meet with you again at Evenglow.”  She beckoned Arbec to take his place.

Dismissed, Trodwen tottered back to his campsite in the bowels of the great cave.  Bright lights glowed in his mind much as the Old Woman’s pendant glowed, each light a pinpoint of information.  For the first time in a long time, Trodwen was hopeful.  If he, and they could keep learning, and if they could teach others, then maybe the world could be saved.

***************************

 

“They can see us, you know.  And hear us, some of them.”

“Who can see and hear us, Ement?”

The two Mages were sitting cross-legged on their sleeping platforms, Ement’s little red triangular hat pulled low over his forehead.  The harsh lessons of time had etched themselves into Ement’s bearded face, cutting chasmic lines into his forehead and around his mouth.  He was a bit shorter than Trodwen, though their bodies were a lot alike-stumpy and roundish.  Ement was dressed in trous sewn from Giant’s cast off cloth scraps and a jerkin made of nothing they had seen before, with tiny holes through woven strands of white.  His boots were fashioned of rat skin fitted tightly to his feet and ending just below his knees.  There was a lot of white in his hair, speaking of much power used.  He was pale as river clay, likely because, living in the fog-circled city, he saw little of the sun.  He wouldn’t turn to fully face Trodwen, whether from deference or natural shyness, Trodwen couldn’t tell; though why Ement should think he had to defer to Trodwen was a mystery.  Nevertheless, the effect was odd.  Ement’s whispered comments bounced off the wall before reaching Trodwen’s ear, giving each word a weird magnified echo.

“The young Giants.  Children, they call them.”

“THEY CAN??!!”

“Yes, of course.  Remember what the Old Woman said.  Giants and Halftje used to live and work closely together for the good of the world.  When Giants turned to machines they turned away from the natural elements we used.  Maybe they forgot us because they stopped believing in what we stood for.  Maybe they felt bad because they knew we wouldn’t fit into the world they were so busy building.  Who knows?  In time, the Giants stopped believing that  Halftje  WERE.  They stopped seeing us. Though for a time we may have still sung the same songs, we no longer sang them together.”

“But the children of Giants didn’t stop seeing us?”

“It makes sense, really.  Very young children believe in magic because they haven’t yet been taught NOT to.  There are even those who can see and here us until they are your Ivine’s age, simply because they refuse to give up the evidence of their own eyes and ears.  Until now, we have tried to avoid those who could see us, because the complications of being noticed were too great.”

“And now?”  Trodwen pulled thoughtfully at his beard.  Perhaps, he thought, he was about to understand the purpose behind Ivine’s Dream.

“Now, friend Trodwen, I think it is time to come out of hiding!  I think it is time to start recruiting young Giants to our mutual cause!  There are many young ones whose parents still hold threads of the long ago green way in their souls; these are the ones who hear, see and believe in us most completely, these are the children we should start to work with.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER III

 

“Pah! My sister is a fool!  She has always been weak and simpery, ever acting champion to the cursed Giants.  I credit nothing she says!”

Sylanna stood at least two heads taller than other Halftje.  Her black hair flowed freely to the mid point of her back and blended into the ground length ebony cloak she wore.  No white coursed through Sylanna’s locks, for though she was Mage born, her powers had always been used to harm, not heal.  The snakes that she forced to her bidding wove resentfully around her feet.  Two emerald snakes formed a living girdle, criss-crossed as they were around the length of her long claret coloured gown.  Anger spat from eyes as black as her hair.

Tevane was tired.  He had traveled an eightday to reach Sylanna’s cave, eating and sleeping little on the way.  He wanted to sink into a bed of leaves and pass into oblivion for at least a day, but dared not.  He had not technically been banished, but no member of any clan would hear his words after the big meeting.  His own parents and sibs had cast him pitying looks as they left the Hall.  Now he felt he had no choice but to throw his lot in with Sylanna.  She stood tall before him, a scowl on her finely drawn face, daring him, perhaps, to say the wrong thing.  Tevane’s stomach felt like it wanted to come up through his throat, so great was the fear and awe the darkling Haftje Wizard inspired in him.

Sylanna, with her dark magics was every bit as powerful as the Old Woman.  He must choose his words carefully.  If he mis-spoke, she could turn him into something not of nature and leave him hurting for the rest of his days.

“You are wise, T’Char Sylanna,” he said now.  “Your Wizard sight is many times greater than your sister’s.  I believe you have the right of it and that the Giants will die of their own poisons long before they can really impact our sheltered places.  But, T’Char, there are only two of us.”  There, he’d done it though he couldn’t quite fathom why-he’d thrown his lot in with hers.  Would she accept him or turn him into a tainted mushroom?

Sylanna merely quirked an eyebrow.

Encouraged, Tevane continued, “I did try to talk to other Halftje, but,” he spat contemptuously, “they are all under thrall to the Old Woman and rush like foolish ants to do her bidding.  If she is successful in teaching them the old lost ways, then the steps of the Halftje will merge once more with those of the Giants.”

“And if they do, quisling Tevane?  What then?”

He gulped.

“Then, T’Char, I think we would be lost.  How can you challenge your sister, how can you hope to lead and reclaim the world for all Halftje if you have no followers save me?  Doubt not that I am loyal to you,” he added hastily as he saw sparks glowing in her strange eyes with their slanted pupils, “but I am only one and I have not Dreamed, nor am I likely to.  What can two do against an army?”

“Why Tevane, I’m surprised at how little you understand.  If my sister can teach others what she knows, then surely I will be able to impart my vast store of knowledge to you.”

“Still. T’Char, there is only one of me.  All others follow the Old Woman.”

“Perhaps not ALL, Student Tevane.  There are other Guilds and Affinities hidden in the dark places of the world, struggling daily with hopelessness and despair.  Many who believe they have been forgotten, and are worth nothing.  Many of these will easily be drawn to my vision, you can rely on that.”

Tevane paced nervously in front of the cave entrance. No matter how cold the day was, it always felt half again as chill wherever Sylanna was.  Though it was getting on to the new-growth season, there was still a hazards breath of snow in the air.  Way too cold for snakes that should still have been adenning, but no creature in Sylanna’s thrall could say her ‘no’. However, the snakes weren’t happy about their enslavement. Each time Tevane’s footsteps took him past his Mage, the two snakes entwined about her waist lifted their heads and hissed sluggishly.  Jewel hued drops of poison glistened on the tips of rust-red fangs.  Tevane didn’t know where the snakes had come from, but he was sure they were not native to these woods.  And he was scared.  He too was welded to Sylanna, strongly in her grip.  But, feckless as he had been to throw his lot in with hers, he was not stupid.  The creatures who even now wove intricate patterns around Sylanna’s feet meant nothing to her.  He had seen many die of the cold.  He had seen his Mage throw their bodies carelessly into the bush.  For each one that perished, two more came gliding through the underbrush to take their place.

Tevane was sure that Sylanna COULD entreat legions of the disaffected to serve her.  Once she had her army, she would have no use for him.  Far from teaching him what she knew, she would crush him as heedlessly as she crushed the leaves underfoot.

Where would she throw his carcass to rot?  He was not left long to ponder this disturbing thought.  Sylanna had plans.

“Come, Tevane.  We must prepare for a long journey.  If what you tell me of this younglings Dream is true, then she and her family will soon leave to take their place in the city.  I’m sure Ement-fool will accompany them, and I wish to be no more than a footstep behind.  Where better to find acolytes than among the disenchanted in the foul nest the Giants call a City!

*************************************************

 

Nighttime encompassed Ement’s group, the dark denser than pond muck, for the tree canopy above them let in no starlight at all.  They had traveled as long as they could, trusting only to the squirrels’ sense of direction to keep them on their path.  When they finally camped for the night, they were all to tired to do more than build a small fire to keep away the night-flying biters, and to grab a handful each of ground meal crackers to stave off the sniping hunger in their bellies.  No idle chat just dispirited ‘Safe night, happy dreams’.  The squirrels, freed of harness, decided to spend the night in the tallest tree.  Since Hani had not accompanied them, Jatoc would have to use the best of his skills come daybreak to persuade them back into service.  Packs were hauled to one side of the fire to use as sleep rests; the fur mats that were a buffer between rider and squirrel hide would serve as blankets.

Riding squirrels was not an easy task.  Granted, they covered ground faster than any Halftje could walk, but each long bound jarred the rider unmercifully, whip sawing bodies back and forth, snapping heads so hard that it was a wonder their necks didn’t break. Trodwen was sure it was hard on the beasts as well, and had asked Ement to slow their pace.  Ement had refused, glancing warily behind him, to nothing the others could see.  When Trodwen asked him what he saw, Ement’s reply was brusque and not at all helpful

“I sense something wrong in these woods, and want to be quit of them as soon as possible!”  Trodwen thought that maybe Ement’s sense of wrongness was because he was a city dweller and NO woods would feel good to him, but he said nothing.

Who knew what scenery they passed, since it was all a pain filled blur?  Squirrels had no sense of place or formation when they were Persuaded, just a need to get where they were going in order to get a reward.  More than a few crashes resulted as the rodents crossed each other’s paths.  Trodwen had been involved in a few smash-ups; as a result, he had a massive headache.  After the others turned in for the night, he heated a small pot of water over the fire and added powdered willow bark to make a tea that should relieve most of the ache.  It was hot, but he didn’t wait, sipping it one careful mouthful at a time, at the same time listening to the night sounds surrounding the campsite.  He had grown up in these woods, had only crossed their borders a handful of times to go to the city for important meets.  Though this part of the wood was not his territory, he was comfortable with most of the rustlings and squeaks that came to his ears; they were both familiar and dear.  But there were also noises-not many, but THERE-, that didn’t belong to the night.  Almost, as he strained, cocking his head to one side, could he hear whispers.  Faint, but he’d have sworn they were human, not forest creature.  As he rose to go and investigate, the whispers ceased and the wood was itself once more.

Already, he missed Hani.  He could almost see her as she’d stood, hands on hips, supervising the packing of his bag.

“Make sure you have plenty of ‘corns for the squirrels and rats.”

AND

“Make sure to pack enough warm clothing, not just the old chopped off trous and jerkins I saw you toss in there.  I know the Full Sun Season is upon us, but who knows what weather you will encounter on the journey.”

AND

“Take this feather cover, it’s warm and light.  Also take this feather pack.  You can place it on a rock at night to cushion your head as you sleep.”

AND

“Take a keepsake from each of the children.”  Never mind that the ‘children’ were all grown and gone, nothing would do but that he tuck a button from Termid’s old shirt, a dried blue flower from a bouquet Chinny had picked ages ago, and a feather from Allwood’s ancient cap into an inside pocket of his vest.

AND

“Do you have a mug?  I know Merwyn has packed a kettle and pans, and I have sent her a share of dried acorn meat and forest thistle, but you need your own mug.”

Until, finally, Hani tucked the image of a warm hug from her, for the times she was sure it would be needed, into a tiny space in his brain, and he was mounted on a squirrel (the same one?  He didn’t know, and he still had not mastered the knack of calling them, so Hani had done it again.  One of the skills he’d have to work on.)  As it loped away, Trodwen twisted as far as he could, and waved to Hani waving at him until she was lost to sight.

Almost, he had not come on this journey.  They were not out of the wood yet and already he felt the keen gut-twist of separation.  There had been no actual need for his presence, since Ement was with the group and would see them safely to new lodging as well as help them make their way in the city, but Trodwen felt compelled.  Part of his desire was to stay with his lifefriends a bit longer; some was to continue his discussions with Ement about the children of Giants.  He was eager to see for himself the truth of Ement’s words and find a way to use the children in the coming battle.  Not through harm or bloodshed, that was NEVER a Halftje way, but could they be talked to, Persuaded to help?  THAT was what he wished to know.  There was something else though, something unnamed that made him feel he HAD to go, even when it meant his studies with the Old Woman were put on hold.  To her credit, the Old Woman had not questioned that which Trodwen himself did not understand.

“Perhaps we all need to pay more heed to that small voice within us, my friend.  Go with my blessing.” 

Still a bit uneasy about the odd sounds he’d heard, but with his headache ebbing, Trodwen rolled himself into his fur mat and, feet to the fire, slept.

 

“Quiet, you fool!  Sylanna hissed at Tevane.

“Sorry, T’Char, I only meant to ask….” He whispered as close to her ear as he dared.

“Quiet, I said!  The Great Trodwen can hear us!”  The ‘Great Trodwen’ was said with a sarcastic sneer.  Sylanna pushed Tevane away with the tip of her cudgel.  Abashed, he turned back to the task of tethering the rats they had ridden, drawing in a painful breath as one of them lunged and bit him deep on his shoulder, tearing the flesh away and leaving blood to course down his arm.  He would have to treat the bite soon, Tevane knew.  An untreated rat bite would quickly fester.  Sylanna would pay no heed to his injury, she’d probably add to his pains by cuffing him on the ear for his clumsiness.  His T’Char might be great, but Tevane knew from experience that she was not the nurturing sort.  He wondered if, in their haste to pack and follow Ement’s group, they had remembered to pack any healing balm.

 

Ement’s group set off the next morning after breaking their fast with dried burdock and cups of acorn tea.  Already in the early dawn, there was hint of the heat to come, and Trodwen was glad the boughs of the great freel and tbrack trees that formed a roof overhead would shade them.  His headache vanished, Trodwen felt better, none of the disquiet of the previous night intruding on his thoughts, and it was only a slight damper on his feeling of well being that he again failed to call down the squirrels to aid them.  Ah, well-he’d master the gift soon, and, in the meantime, clever Jatoc had not only called them, but had devised a system to make their journey more pleasant.  By dint of leaving a time-space between when one squirrel left and the next departed, they would manage to avoid the crashes of the day before.  All agreed to stop at a place familiar to Ement, so it was left to him to visit each animal, fixing the location firmly in their minds.  He also took care to warn them not to stop and nibble on stray nuts they found along the path.

CHAPTER IV

 

Sylanna’s plans to leave shortly after Ement’s group were thwarted by the big rat that had bitten Tevane and by Tevane himself.

Wood rats, dark brown, big and powerful, had been chosen them for their tirelessness and speed.  They were also very intelligent and able to take large blocks of instruction and act on them.  But these very traits made them hard to manage.  Sylanna could not force them to her bidding the way she did snakes.  None of the rats wanted to act as pack animal or riding steed, despite Sylanna’s promise of reward.  She had finally succeeded in packing the contents of their camp on the quietest beast and harnessing the smaller rat for Tevane.  The big rat, however, was not in a tractable frame of mind.  After biting Tevane the previous night, the creature had fought against being tethered.  It would not yield it’s name, no matter how hard Sylanna probed.  If she had it’s name, she could control it more easily, but no matter.  She could have let him go and tried calling another, but that would have meant defeat, and she refused to back down.  Ever. 

Finally, tiring of the struggle, she sent a bolt of pain to it’s brain that subdued it long enough for her to shrug the unfamiliar harness in place. The physical and mental effort left her gasping.

At that, she was in much better shape than her young pupil.  Tevane’s bite had become sorely infected.  Sylanna had never Dreamed; she had no healing powers.  But any fool could recognize that the red swelling and heat of his body signaled a raging fever.  Very inconvenient.  Were it not for the fact that he was her only disciple and that she would need his help to recruit others in the city, she would not be bothered with him.  No matter: he would have to climb up and hold on any way he could.  If he fell off, she would leave him behind as food for the worms.

“Get up.” She snarled, kicking him with the toe of her boot.  “Time is wasting, we have far to go and much to do.”

Prod as she might, Sylanna could not make Tevane rearrange himself from a sorry huddled lump on the ground.  This was a problem. If she left him here, he could, probably would, die, and it had been a struggle to recruit him in the first place.  Worse, if she left him here and he somehow recovered then he, disenchanted by her desertion, might, no, probably WOULD, disclose her plans to that meddling old she-fowl, he sister.  This complication Sylanna did not need.

Quick thought brought a possible plan.  Momentarily releasing the two girdle snakes-she did not want to crush them, after all- Sylanna half dragged, half carried Tevane and, pushing first from one side then pulling from the other, she finally had him arranged like a sack of forest loam over the back of the harnessed rat.  She tethered his rat to her own, binding their tails firmly together with bindweed, then lashed the packrat to Tevane’s mount in the same manner.  The effort left her panting, disheveled and sweaty.  Deliberately, she straightened her gown and recalled the snakes to their proper place before mounting the larger sulking rat.  In order for her plan to work, they must travel in a wide circle, sparing no speed from the rodents.  Just as well they were still in the wood, she thought sourly.  She knew it, every leaf and rivulet as well as any of the snivelers whose home it was.  And Knowing was power.

Fixing a picture-site firmly in the rodent’s mind, she lashed its rump with a stick from the ground.  The rat, powerless to do anything else, took off at a run.

 

*******************************

 

 

The days journey had progressed better than he’d hoped, Trodwen thought, easing his clamoring bones from atop the squirrel.  He hurt, merciful starlight he hurt, but this day’s travels were an improvement over yesters.  No crashes, and they had made better time, even with a stop at midlight to eat.  The others were even chattering away as they released the squirrels and set about making camp.  Ivine and Burl were already collecting dead twigs and branches for the fire ring that Leafmold was building out of rocks.  Ement rummaged in a pack for the utensils to make last-meal.  Ement, much to Trodwen’s surprise had turned a fair hand to the cooking, making a tasty much out of little for the midlight meal.  Trodwen himself could not so much as boil a squawk-bird’s egg properly.  Merwyn, though a good cook, seemed content to give over the chore to Ement.  She and Jatoc gathered greenboughs, dragging them into place to serve as bedding bases.  They would all sleep softer through the dark.

After sup, Trodwen planned to oil the harness and riding rigs.  Now, he decided, a walk around camp to scout out the best place to return their bodily wastes to the earth would serve to ease the ache in his bones.  He set out on a natural path covered by last Turns leaf and needle fall.

On this second day of the journey, they were still deep within the wood, but much farther than Trodwen had gone before, at least in the direction that Ement was heading.  Even that which was familiar was not.  The trees were the same KIND of trees, with dark green fuzzy halespren growing on their distaff sides, good either as a soup or as a healant, but they were not HIS trees-they felt and sounded different.  Now and then he passed little clearings that he thought might suit their purpose, but the new flowers struggling bravely through last years undergrowth seemed too bright and cheerful to be disturbed, and so he went just a little further, Then he came to the rim of a small circle where nothing grew, though there seemed to be a log in the middle of it-a handy seat for when the need arose.

“Jatoc!  Ement!  Burl!  Find me here. Quickly!”

The men dropped what they were doing and ran towards the sound of Trodwen’s voice.  He had not gone far, less than five hands strides from the camp.

“What is it, Trodwen?  Are you hurt?”  Breathless, the men skidded to a stop in front of Trodwen, their eyes casting wildly about in search of what had alarmed him.  Halftje were not, never had been, weapons-bearers.  They lived in harmony with the world around them, and had long been used to avoiding any creature that sought to do them ill, so they carried nothing with which to defend themselves.  They were looking for an enemy, not the familiar, so at first their eyes passed over what Trodwen had seen. Then…

“Tevane.”

“By the cold white, it is young Tevane!”

“What brings him so close to our path?”

“Was he following us?”

“What ill has come his way that he lays there and speaks not?”

“I do not know,” Trodwen answered their questions, “nor do I know where his Dark Companion can be.  Close, I vow, since he has long been attached to her use.  I do know this-whatever has befallen them, Tevane burns with fever.  We cannot leave him here.”

Sylanna watched from her cover in a near bush.  She would settle herself, farther from here, but still close enough to monitor Trodwen’s little group daily.

It took all of them to carry Tevane back to camp, taking three times as long to get back, for the stumps and rocks they had fairly leapt over in their haste to get to Trodwen had to be carefully outwitted, but they did not let go of their burden.  There seemed to be no strength to his bones, so that he folded in the middle when they tried to pick him up and his fever-bright body was so hot that it felt as though their hands were being held too close to a fire and would soon blister and burn.

*********************

Back at camp, even as the questions flew, a bed was made ready, water was put to boil and Merwyn stripped the clothes from Tevane’s body, wincing when she discovered the bite mark.  Rising, she went to the pack that held their balms and medicinal roots, at the same time sending Jatoc and Ivine to gather some of the halespren from the trunks of nearby trees, that she would use to cover the bite, binding it with clean spider webs.  She then brewed a tea made from yellowroot and spruce bud mixed with pine needles, sieving it through layers of web, then feeding the broth to Tevane sip by sip as Ement knelt behind, supporting the upper half of Tevane’s body while Ivine held his jaw open.  Most of the brew dribbled down his lax chin and onto the fur covering him, but at last Merwyn was satisfied that enough of the mixture was in him.

Tevane roused a little when they rolled him over to inspect for other wounds.  Not finding any, Merwyn cleansed the bite, causing him to moan in pain.  The whole time, she spoke soothingly, telling Tevane that he was with friends, that what they did would help him to heal; apologizing for the additional pain they caused, smoothing on ointment with the gentlest of fingertips.  Ement, Trodwen, Jatoc and the rest stood in a circle around Tevane, adding their own encouragement to his healing, speaking in strong words the pictures they held in their minds of a healthy happy Tevane who was one with the world around him.  Over and over, until pain smoothed from his face like waves smooth sand and Tevane slept.

“It would seem that we must interrupt our journey and camp here for at least a hand span of time,” Ement sighed.  “While light remains, we should see to what is necessary to turn this into a more permanent camp.”

 

*********************

 

They hadn’t done badly by any lights, Trodwen thought, looking over their temporary home.  Rough buildings of branches dug into the ground on three sides, the roofs criss-crossed with smaller twigs and laid on with large overlapping M’Pel leaves, the whole weighed down by vines thrown overtop and held in place at ground by rocks tied to the ends.  Four of these they had built, and it had taken the best part of the second day in labour, but they would be sheltered should it rain and the wind come to play.  Packs and harnesses stored neatly in one shelter, greenboughs and sleepfurs in two more and fresh water and healing stuffs in the last.  They had made one cote larger for everyone else to sleep in; though there was barely room to turn over, it would suffice.  The smaller sleeping cote would hold Tevane’s bed and a pallet for whichever Healer was with him, since all had agreed to take it in turns to tend him.

 

 

CHAPTER V

That night, all save Burl were seated wearily on their beds, which had been arranged as if they were around a campfire.  The campfire itself was outside, a safe distance from the shelters, and long since banked for the night. They would have to rely on each other for warmth should it cool during the night.  There was no light in this cote, though Burl had a brathlem gourd filled with acorn oil in the one to the side. They had only brought a certain amount of oil, and whoever tended the patient would have the greatest need.  No starlight came down through the immense trees of the wood, but the Halftje gave little thought to the fact that they could not see each other’s faces.  They could hear and their attention was rapt upon Trodwen, awaiting the answer to a question Ivine had asked.

“As to that, Ivine, I do not know.  As far back as memory goes, some Halftje have Dreamed.  Though who do usually though not always, in the fullness of time become Wizards.  There seem to be many changes in the wind, however, and who can now say what will be?  We are learning more and more ways to share our abilities with each other.  Is this only because there is great need now, or is it as the Old Woman has said, that in the times before memory, we all had these gifts, though not in equal measure?  Perhaps now we will all be Mages.  Perhaps there will be no Mages at all.  The Old Woman told me that once we shared these abilities with the Giants, but that they have forgotten.”

“But, Mage, if it will be true that all of us share the same gifts, why do we now need to leave our homes and go to the city”?  White Flower, Burl’s intended, shuddered as she said the word ‘city’.  She had agree to come with Burl, as she truly loved him and did not want to part from him, but was filled with dread at the thought of living in what she called ‘a big dirty smell’.

“As to that, young Flower, though we may in time share all gifts equally, we do not yet.  There are still Healers and Persuaders among us.  Had the Great Unknown not seen need, Ivine would surely not have Dreamed.  I think we must all have patience while what will be unfolds.  There is no doubt in my mind that the need is great, that the world of Giants and our own is in peril and that we are here to fight that peril.”

“Besides,” Ement broke in, “you all seem to think the city is a horrid place.”

“Isn’t it? White Flower asked, shuddering delicately again.  She, unlike most of the woodland Halftje, was not brown in colour, but the white of foam as it plunges down a waterfall, for all that she and her parents parents parents had been born to the wood.  Her hair, worn to her shoulders, was wavy and the colour of sunbird feathers, her eyes the exact shade of new halespren, with dark specks scattered through the green.  She came only to Burl’s shoulder and was slender to the point of seeming fragile, but White Flower’s gift was the ability to calm wild creatures that had been hurt and she was called on almost daily to handle creatures many times her size.  She had been hurt too, but had never backed down.  Now, she quailed at the thought of life lived away from the wood.

“No,” Ement said, “it is not.  Is the wood a terrible place?

“No!”

“Of course not!”

“It’s a wonderful place, full of life and miracles!”

“How can you even ask such a question?”

“Because your wood, the wood you say is so wonderful, is a place full of danger to the unwary.  A body could trip over a tree limb and break one of his own.  Or slip on a slimy rock and tumble into fast moving water and drown.  Eat a tender plant that kills.  Be carried away and eaten by a creature that prowls the night.

“Yes, Mage Ement, these things do sometimes happen, but usually to those who are new here and forget to heed the warnings we give. There are always a few who do not learn quickly enough  Most of us share a kinship with the creatures that roam the wood.  They know that we stand to help and guard them.”  Leafmold spoke up this time, surprising them.  Leafmold, who, at the TENMARK was already a deep thinker with quick steady hands to a task, but a youngling who never spoke if a look would do.  This declaration from him was almost a Turns worth of words.  Ement, who had only this journey’s worth of acquaintance, but who was at one with Leafmolds shy manner, took his question at value and answered,

“This is true,” he said, “but it is as true of the city as it is of your wood.  Anywhere you go there will be dangers.  There will be need to learn how to avoid those dangers.  There will be new customs to adopt as your own, without losing those that have brought you this far in life.  You must learn to separate the good from the bad, using the good to overcome what is wrong.  And the city has many good things to say for itself.

There is still green space.  There are trees, birds, plants.  All of those things you find here, just not in such abundance.  You can still dance and sing and make music; you may even find that you like learning new instruments and new tunes.  Yes, the grey ground is hard underfoot and smear in the sky scares away the stars, but there are also Giants who recognize the dangers even as we do and want to change things.  We can help.”

“How easy is this for you to say, Mage, when you have lived in the city all your life?”  Trodwen could almost see Leafmold as he spoke: long brown hair hanging down in his face, slender body braced on long slender arms as he leaned forward in all serious intent to hear the answer.

Ement was silent for a long moment

“Strange,” he began after a time, speaking in a rough clogged tone.  He cleared his throat noisily then began again.  “Strange that you would think that I was city-born.  I am originally of Aerie Affinity, but Dreamed at the TWELVEMARK, so came to the city with my family-parents, brother and sister.  My parents long ago stretched to ride the four wild winds; my brother and sister came to their own Dreams and joined with different Affinities.”

“Even after so long a time, I miss the place of my birth.  Miss standing in the face of the storm and hearing it sing to me.  Miss riding on the wings of Skyreigns and hearing them speak.  So long ago it seems the memories should have faded into dreams growing ever fainter in the breeze.  But though I am old now and have done much in my time, though I live in the city and have learned to adjust to her swift changing ways, still my heart beats to the rhythm of the Aerie.”

Trodwen thought of the Ement he had seen so many times through the MARKS.  Trodwen too thought that Ement had been city born.  Seems that he had always looked old and careworn with his skin the colour of streambank clay, and the wide white streak in his hair. Whenever Ement spoke at Guild or Council meets, everyone stopped their mouths to listen, because his words carried the wisdom of experience.  Ement had always FELT old to Trodwen.

He guessed the same could be said for the way other perceived him, for who, save those he had grown up with would remember the Trodwen who was young and unlined and full of happy mischief?  Funny how his heart still felt young.  He doubted Ement could say the same.

Ements next words were a complete surprise.

“Still,” Ement continued, “I feel young.  And while the Skyreign and his cousin the Hauk will no longer come close to me in the city, still sometimes they circle overhead and dip their wings in greeting.  I am not forgotten by the sky dwellers.  And all of the family of black birds are still willing to carry me in flight-shorter perhaps and not as wild, but still freedom.  Jewelbirds come to visit; hovering so close I can see their tiny heart beating.  And the same blue squawkbird that nests in these woods also makes it’s home in the city.  As do the forest robbers with the black fur over their eyes.  Squirrels and rats and bats.  Singing wild dogs, who, as their lands shrink, move to the fringes of the city and roam it’s streets at night, making meal of the Giant’s pets.”

“But, Mage, is this a good thing, to have wild things pent in a city?”  This from Ivine, who lay on her bed of boughs and fur, head propped on her hands, listening hopefully to all Ement had to say.  The smile that had begun to bloom on her face as Ement spoke now disappeared in a frown of concern.

“Young Ivine, it is not.  Wild things belong in the wild.  We all know this.  The pollution sickness affects those of the wild who make their home in the city more strongly than it does those of the wood.  We must find a way to help to help the Giants find the balance they have lost.”

“Maybe,”  Ivine said, yawning hugely, “that is why I Dreamed.”

Ivine’s yawn proved contagious and soon they were all abed.  All that is save Trodwen and Ement, who, after checking on Tevane, sat under a big tree and talked the night away.

 

CHAPTER VI

 

 

Shortly after the third firstlight at their camp, other Halftje living in that part of the wood visited them.  Cuen and his wife Neatha were Healers who, like White Flower, worked mostly with large creatures.  They had both attended the meet in the Hall, and were eager to talk over shared experiences.  Theirs was a smaller group than Trodwen’s, perhaps only two hands worth of people, but they were all people who took the woods’ welfare to heart.

Trodwen had stayed with Tevane through the night, feeding him warm spruce bud tea sip by sip whenever he roused, and more when Tevane awoke enough into himself to wonder where he was.  Now Trodwen was tired, but welcomed Cuen and Neatha as they inspected a sullen Tevane’s wound and pronounced it healing nicely.  They did not nudge Tevane to speak, nor had any of the others, and Tevane offered not even the smallest nod of gratitude.  Ah, well, thought Trodwen, no Halftje had ever done their work for thanks or personal gain-not in these woods, at least.  Burl cut Tevane a staff of deadwood to steady him as he staggered weakly to his daily business.  Ivine brought him a bowl of warm water and clothes to wash with, and Merwyn nettle broth and some acorn cakes.  Then they left him in Leafmold’s care to go and visit.

Merwyn and Neatha traded recipes for healing balms and teas.  Trodwen, Ement, Cuen and Burl settled back in the shade of a thbrack tree, swapping tales and gossip.  In a short while others drifted over to sit with them, and the talk turned to the skills and abilities they had, separate and shared.  Ivine and White Flower made a nest for themselves of the dried needles at the base of the tree and curled up close to Burl and Trodwen.  Even Leafmold joined them, assuring all that Tevane was resting peacefully, and at any rate could be seen easily enough from where they were if he should need help.

It was a peaceful sort of day.  Drifts of bright sun wove down through the leafy canopy and played in the clearing, shifting into a new dance with every slight breeze.  They could hear birds and toads-through-the-dry-leaves-rustle.  Even the worms tunneling through the dirt, leaving their casting to enrich the soil added their songs to the day.  The urgency to get to the city hung suspended like a drop of moisture caught in a spinner’s web.  If they could go nowhere until Tevane was fit, they may as well relax and enjoy the moment.

 

 

“Mage Ement,” Ivine asked after a time of contemplative silence, “how do you keep the noise the Giants make from hurting your ears?  Will there be fungus there with which we can stop up our ears?”  White Flower giggled at the question, but Ement answered seriously.

“I’m heartened to see you curious about your new home, young Ivine, for the more you learn and understand the easier it will be for you to become a part of it.  Now, as to your question.  The city is a fearsome large beast with a heartbeat so thunderous and strong that it sometimes shakes you from your feet.  There are things called automobiles that are in no wise small that of themselves make a clamorous din.  And there are days that the city belches noise as if it had eaten something disagreeable.  The city is vast and she never sleeps, but ‘twixt Starshine and Dayrise she rests, just as this wood does.

There are still Giants and automobiles about, but not so many.  This is when we city Halftje go about our business, for the most part.  If we must go out after Dayrise, we do what woodlanders do when they are about at night-we move swiftly and silently, and we wear clothing that helps us to blend in.  Ah, and, of course, we plug our ears.  I myself have a magnificent set of plugs carved from a curious piece of trash I found in a back alley.  Light it was, though big.  Took me most of the darking hours to get it home.  Worth it though-wonderful plugs, block most of the noise.  Smell a bit though, musty and sourish.”  He wrinkled his nose, at which they all laughed.  “Probably enough left to carve all of you plugs.  It will be my gift to you.”

After murmured thanks all around, Betany, Merwyn and Jatoc’s other daughter asked something that had them all puzzled.  “Mages,” she said. “why is it that not all our speech is the same, but that we can mostly understand the Giants way of speaking?”

“It is part of our history, our shared history, young Betany.  We know that, long ago we rode the shoulders of Giants and whispered in their ears.  Our words were ones of common use then, we understood them, they understood us.  When we went our separate ways, some of our words changed, as did some of theirs.  So we need to learn to talk to each other all over again.”  Trodwen spoke this time, tugging at his hair and setting his pointed cap a little more comfortably on his head.  “However, we do not all speak the same common words.  The world is a bigger place than even I supposed; there are many places in it where the common words are only understood by those Halftje and Giants who live there.  Or, at least, that is the way things were.  Long ago, these places did not know the other places existed.  Now they do.  Giants travel from one land to another, they learn other languages, they eat the different foods of that place.  And some of those Halftje and Giants from far places have made their way to this, our place.  Some of these of our cousins, we don’t understand in their speech, so we use signs and pictures to talk.”

It all sounded very confusing, and Betany said so.

“Bless all the living creatures, it is a muddle, but we get by, and so will you,” Ement answered.

Burl had picked up a stick and was scratching signs in the needles under the tree, as if he’d already met some of these strange new Halftje and wanted to pass the time in a conversation that had no same tongue.

But...

“Where will we live?”

“Why, anywhere you want.  There are many of us who live in the Giant’s houses, in the very bottommost levels, in the darkest corners.  Some live in the spaces between walls, though that would be too cramped an abode for me.  Some live in the big boxes, some live in the highest places in a house, where the rooftop touches the sky.  That is where I live and you are welcome to join me.  It would be good to keep you close while you are still learning.”

Trodwen’s mouth gaped open.  THIS was shy Ement, who used few words and could rarely look directly at people?  Who never joined in the laughter and merriment, but seemed to be content being a solitary onlooker?  Only a small flying bzzzt seemed to notice his open mouth.  He coughed, then swallowed.  The bzzzt tickled as it went down.

“However”. Ement was saying, “there ARE greenswards in the city, where trees grow, with places made by birds then abandoned.  Such places, I am told, can be made snug and warm, even in the time of the cold white.  Do not worry, my friends, you will have a home, and soon it will be as familiar to you as my own now is to me.”

“Mage, will your wife mind you bringing us unasked to your home?”  Merwyn and Neatha had come to join the group, Neatha settling herself on Cuen’s lap and stretching her legs out atop his, Merwyn sitting beside Jatoc, her head cushioned on his shoulder.

“I have no wife to mind,” Ement said brusquely, old hurt flickering in his faded blue eyes.  “I was to have been married, but my heart’s beat could not find it in herself to leave the Aerie.  We were so young, but had been together forever it seemed.  I would not have thought that anything could part us.  Ai:lin her name was: Ai:lin the Whispering Wind they called her, so kind and gentle and fair was she.”  He could call her face to mind as if he had seen her only a Dayrise past, alive with delight as she soared on the back of a Skyreigh in the tumbling wind, arms outstretched to embrace the clouds, her laugh silvery, unafraid, exultant, alive, and the ache in his heart that never quite went away quickened to a sharp pang.  In his mind’s eye, she was still young and beautiful, as though the passage of years would not dare to affect her.

“Wah,” he said, catching sight of their sympathetic faces, “it was all a long time ago and mostly forgotten.”

They knew it wasn’t.  Merwyn and Jatoc clasped hands, Burl and White Flower reached to hold each other and Trodwen thought of his Hani, seamed face and smiling eyes who berated him for tracking forest dirt unto her newly cleaned floors and scolded him for taking so much upon himself while carefully packing hugs for him to take out like a warm sweet smelling shirt on days when he was down.

Cuen broke the somber mood, asking if they had brought any music makers with them.  Soon the clearing rang with the sounds of water drums, reed pipes, songs and laughter.

Ement was quiet, sitting with his back against the bole of the tree, wishing his heart were not so laden with memories of his lost love.

Ah, he chided himself; you must think strong positive thoughts.  City living was not for the weak or faint of heart.  Young Ivine and her family needed him to be there for them, to guide them through the days to come until they could make their own way.  They would be good for him too.  There had been little of laughter and music in his mostly solitary life.  He hoped they would choose to make his home theirs.  They had as much to teach him as to learn from him. 

Sitting a little straighter, he clapped his hands to the beat of the drum.

Tevane, crouched in the shadows at the side of the cote, watched the merrymaking and felt a great abysmal nothingness in the center of his being.

 

CHAPTER VII

 

“I am much better,” Tevane snapped at Burl, “and I do not need nursemaiding as though I were a child.  I do not welcome your interference or your resentment at having to be away from the others of your kin.  You act as if I had an illness that there was no hope for, save that you might catch it.  I am well, I say.  Go back to your FAMILY.”  He sneered the last, jerking his head towards the larger cote where the rest were settling in for the night.  Burl shrugged his shoulders.  It was not true that he was resentful, nor that he thought Tevane’s fever-bite was catching.  What was true was that Tevane did seem to be mostly recovered.  He now ate what the rest of them ate, spurning the healing broths Burl’s Muta made.  He even looked after his own personal needs, making his way to and from the waste hole without help, though the journey left him weak and trembly for a while.  Hopefully, this meant that they would all soon be able to resume their journey.  Tevane still had not said anything about his plans, or what he was doing in this part of the wood, but Trodwen and Ement thought that probably, once he was well enough, Tevane would go his own way.

Burl, who would willingly have stayed, would not force his company on a Tevane who was more prickly than a stickle plant.  Wishing Tevane a peaceful good night, Burl joined the others just as drops of rain started to fall.

They woke to gloomy greylight, more Nightclose than Dayrise.  Water thumped and splashed on the broad overlapping leaves that formed the roof of the cote and ran in a steady stream from the edges of the roof, creating a muzzy curtain that made it seem as if they hadn’t yet wiped the sleep from their eyes.  The firepit was a mess of soggy ash and half-burned wood that made a stink in the air like something dead and rotting.  No fire food this morning, nor tea, but they could eat the dried goods Hani had packed- shrooms and young wood fern, and drink the water that tumbled down in front of them.

One thing was certain-they would not be traveling anywhere until the skies dried out.  Squirrels did not like to get wet.  Nor did Halftje, unless it was in a clear sun warmed pool, or inside during the Cold White in a tub of steaming scented water.

Necessary trips to relieve themselves had to be made, and this they took in turns, lofting a sleep skin turned the wrong way out to keep them dry.  Leafmold was the third to go, and he made a detour to Tevane’s cote on his way back, dancing barefoot around the puddles.

“He’s gone, Mages!  Muta, Da, Tevane has gone!”  Leafmold ran into the sleep cote, briefly pausing to shake the rain off the sleep skin before passing it to Betany.  She dashed off, her need urgent.  The others made the short trip to the side-by cote and stood looking in, getting drenched.

Tevane was gone.  Without so much as a ‘fare well’ or a ‘taks to you all’ thought Trodwen  At least he’d left the place neat.  The sleep skin was folded on top of the pallet, which had been straightened from sleep disarray.  The gourd light, safely out and cold had been placed at the bottom of the pallet.

“Fare you well, young Tevane,” merwyn said now.  “Wherever your plans take you, no matter the company you keep, may light and the right of things keep you safe.”  They all sent their own good thoughts into the air.  Then Trodwen rubbed his hands together, pushing up the sodden sleeves of his robe impatiently.  They had all done their best for the lad.  The choice to leave had been his, and although Trodwen could wish that he hadn’t crept off like a night-peeper at sun’s light, there was good news to be had.  The empty cote would provide them a little stretch room for as long as the water-laden skies kept them here.

“Let’s move another pallet in here, then get out of this wet before we all become drowned soil diggers!”

The rain kept up for the next three Dayrises.  At night they were not quite cozy.  The rain kept out but damp crept in, chilling their bones and dragging out their energy to dissipate in the mists.  Clothing was damp; bedding was damp offering no comfort to aching bones that were tired from lack of activity.  The water drums and reed pipes reacted badly; refusing to hold a tune, so there was no music.  They couldn’t play games and no one felt like talking story.  Merwyn broke two combs that had been painstakingly carved from the backbone of a dead fish when she tried to comb the snarly frizz that had become Betany’s hair.

This rain, instead of being the clean life-giving gift they had all revered felt wrong; greasy, but at the same time as if it would burn their skin if they stayed out in it overlong

“This,” said Ement as he and Trodwen sat in the doorway chewing Greenleaf to clean their teeth and renew their breath, “is what rain in the city is like.  All the time.”

The night of the third rain, Ivine Dreamed again, an event unheard of as far back as either Trodwen or Ement could remember.

 

Ement’s heart hurt.  Oh, not that there was anything wrong with him.  He was old, yes.  Older than he cared to remember, but he was strong and of good health.  Yet his heart was sore and his mind troubled.  He fiddled with the foot loop on the burthen carrier, tightening it just a bit so the sleep rolls would stay evenly distributed.  The others were working on similar tasks.  Casting a quick look around, Ement saw frowing faces and tight pulled lips.  Doubtless the heartache he felt was theirs as well.

FLET!  He had vowed to help young Ivine and her family, but how, now, was he to keep that promise?  He couldn’t put the from picture out of his mind-great tears rolling down Merwyn’s face as she’d stood with arms wrapped protectively around her youngest.

“I can’t help it, Da, Muti. I didn’t ASK to Dream again.”

“Ivine.  Little Bright Leaf.  NO-one has ever Dream’t twice. Have they, Trodwen?

Jatoc had wrung his hands as he’d appealed to his lifefriend.  “Surely this Dream was not a portent?”  The fear on Jatoc’s face had been reflected throughout the small camp.  Trodwen had taken his time answering.  A wonder his braid had not torn loose, the way his hands had twisted, twisted, twisted.

“No,” he’s said, finally,” but, because I cannot recall such an event in our history does not mean that this Dream is any less real than Ivine’s first.  We know there is urgency to the need in the world.  Perhaps Ivine is the first of a New Order.  I say,” as he smiled reassuringly at them all, “that we are strong and not so old that we cannot learn new ways.”

That had been that.  They had all turned to necessary tasks, left in the silence to think their own thoughts.

No one had had a stomach fit for breakfast, and this new Dream meant that they must move even faster, so they had all taken handsful of nuts and dried berries for their side pouches.

Ement gave the strap he was holding one last tug, then loosened it immediately as the squirrel jumped and chittered in protest.  “Sorry, sorry,” he muttered, soothing it with a stroke of his gnarled fingers.

 

 

 

What kind of life awaited her, Ivine mused as they loped along.  On the outside, she was calm.  Had to be calm.  Inside, her heart quailed and her spirit felt small.  Used up.  They had not even arrived at the first stop on their journey, and she had broken her parents hearts.  Again.  Now she had to make them all believe she was strong.  Because she hadn’t shared all of her Dream.

Where she was going, she had to go alone.

 

 

“We should camp here for the night.”

They were at the farthest dip of the woods, the furthest any of them save Trodwen and Ement, had ever been.  They all felt it-the sense of un-rightness and the not-known.  Trodwen, for all that he’d been here before was as nervous as the rest, staring out over the expanse of long sere grasses they would be wading through in the days to come.  There were dangers in the long stalks, more at night than in light of day. Not a bad thing, to spend one last night here on the edge of the familiar.

“I’m hungry,” he said, rubbing his hands together briskly before clambering off the squirrel.  He fished in his pouch for a nut to reward the little beast before setting it free.  The others slowly did the same, dragging off sacks and harnesses then watching their mounts scamper up nearby trees.

The fields of Giants were no place for woodland creatures.

 

“Mage, I am that tired, I don’t know as I can take another step.

Little wonder, Trodwen thought, his gaze traveling from where Merwyn’s hand rested on his arm up to her careworn face.  Two Dayrises past, they had packed all their goods onto two pull-alongs, hastily constructed from the dry grasses, agreeing as a group that it would be easier to walk the rest of the way than to try and call strange beasts to carry them.  Ement said that he always walked the field  Three Dayrises, he figured, would take them to the other side and his home nearby.  Now Ement, hearing Merwyn, stopped, looking back at Trodwen.

“Perhaps we should have called upon a few rats to ease our passage,” he shrugged.  “I have only ever come this way in the mid-time of Things Growing, when the grasses were soft and easily bent, and the soil dry.”

New growth had not yet sprouted, and the dry grass had wicked sharp edges that caught in their hair and clothing, often cutting through unprotected skin.  Thanks to the recent rains, the ground beneath their feet was wet and moggly, making it difficult to move the pull-alongs, even with two people togged to harness made of carrier straps pulling and one pushing from behind. Often crawlers and biting fliers feasted on the blood of fresh cuts.  None of them had washed or changed clothes.  Little point, less water.  They were all coated with muck.  They all smelled and they were all bone weary

Nodding his head, Yrodwen patted Merwyn’s hand.  “I think we will rest here the night,” he said.

 

 

 

A short distance behind them, Sylanna laughed soundlessly at the little party making camp.  Had they been wiser, they’d have done what she had done, and kept their pack animals.  SHE was almost as fresh as the day the had started out.  She’d only encountered two problems.  One was keeping farther behind than she had liked, so the others would not sense that her animals were out of place here.  It was hard, keeping the rats from moving so swiftly that they overtook the ragged band ahead of her.  Her other problem was an increasingly sullen Tevane, who seemed to think that Sylanna should have nursed his injuries herself.  She had yet to convince the quisling that dumping him in a camp with healers had been for his own good.  Stupid child.  Stubborn child-he also refused to go near the big rat again, so it was left to her to unload both animals and tether them together so they wouldn’t stray at night.

She gripped Tevane’s shoulder as he scuttled past, motioning him to start carefully cutting grasses.  Enough of them, piled high and covered with voleskin would keep her comfortable and warm through to Dayrise.  A grievance, to be sure, that she could not risk a fire for a hot meal, but that was the way it was.

 

Ement raised his head, sniffing the air.  Something smelled bad.  Unnatural.  The short hairs on the back of his neck rose in protest of something that he could not see but that he sensed meant them harm.

He would be glad to get home.

 

 

“Ooh!

“How did you do that?”

“Can you teach us, Burl?”

“I don’t know.”  Burl scratched his head, puzzled.  He was a bit taller than the rest of his kin and more solid than slender.  More stolid as well, given more to physical activity than deep thought.  His colouring and the way he lived his life in service to others marked him as part of the clan, but, of them all, Burl had had the hardest time with the exercises pressed on them by the Old Woman.  Oh, he had practiced conscientiously.  He had tried his hardest.  Without a glimmer of success.

Until now.

“I don’t know,” he repeated, leaning back on his sleep pad.  He’d made each of them a similar pad from the tough grasses, going far afield, cutting down three or four stems at a time so as not to leave a large bald patch.  “I was just thinking that even though we can’t have a hot meal because we cannot safely light a fire or the lanterns in all this dry grass, it’d be nice to have a wee bit of light.  Then THEY showed up.”

THEY were a small swarm of glowbugs, floating mainly above Burl’s head, but one or two hovered over each person.  When Merwyn scrambled up with a sudden need to use the pit Burl had dug a short distance away, the insects hovering over her head went with her.

“Thank you, son,” she laughed.

I didn’t know we even had glowbugs around here.  I’ve never seen any.  Come to that though, I’ve always come through in the time of wet, and could use a greasevine wick and lamp.”  Ement chewed thoughtfully on a grass stem as he watched the little creatures circle.  They gave off a brighter light than he would have imagined possible for their tiny size.

“Well” Burl almost whispered, not wanting his usual booming bass voice to scare theit light source away, “I wasn’t trying to do anything, really; I just didn’t want us sitting in the dark.  It feels odd, do you know?  The dark here?”  Burl looked straight at the two mages as he spoke, his honest face creased in concern.

“I do know,” Ement answered.  Trodwen nodded gravely.

The rest of the group had obviously missed the overtones of the conversation.  They clamored all at once.

“Teach me, Burl, teach me!”

 

 

 

Ivine lay a little apart from the others, stroking the softness of the time-scarred skin wrapping her from head to toe against the chill in the air.  How sad that something so beautiful had had to die so that she could be warm.  To be sure, it was only when the creature died that the harvested and preserved the hide.  Halftje never killed anything if they could help it, but they never wasted anything, either.  She squirmed, trying to get comfortable and lure sleep to her, but her mind was too full to let her tired body settle.  If she couldn’t save woodland creatures from dying of sickness or grave hurt or the wear and tear of time, how could she, by herself, hope to save the rootless souls, Halftje and Giant, who dwelt in the bowels of the city?  She was not dismayed at the delays caused by the land they traveled through.  Most of her being hoped they would never reach the first destination.  That they would meet some obstacle that would force them to turn back.  Then she felt guilty for such unworthy thoughts.  This was who she was.  This was her heritage; her life’s work about to begin.  She must trust the Spirits to guide her.

Ivine sighed quietly and rolled onto her back, peering through the grasses high above her to catch a glimpse of the night stars.  She wondered if the Giants had a name for the crushing weight that lay on her chest.

 

Jatoc and Merwyn lay cuddled together, their hearts, after so long a time together, beating in unison; hearts that, though sore and troubled earlier, had let go their anxiety and had put their trust in the Universe to provide

 

Betany, Leafmold, Burl and White Flower slept close to each other, having arranged their bedding in a semi-circle.  Where they lay, Burl and White Flower’s fingers touched.  Whatever their dreams, they both smiled.

 

 

Some distance away, Tevane lay curled up on a pile of prickly grasses, shivering.  The big rat had trampled his sleep fur when T’char pulled it from the pack.  It was muddy and wet now, but the rat lay on it quite comfortably.  Tevane was miserable and cold, while, just over there, his T’char was wrapped, snug and warm, in TWO sleep furs.

Would it, he wondered, have hurt her to share?

 

Sylanna, oblivious, snored lightly, the two girdle snakes coiled resentfully by her head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Well, Ement puffed, we are here.  This is my home and I bid you all ‘well come’.”

They were all panting, having climbed up two of what the Mage called ‘a flight of stairs’.  They were all very puzzled-there’d been no ‘flight, no birds involved at all.  One ‘flight’, the smaller one, was outside.  The men had all hopped or been pushed up, one cold hard stone at a time.  The women had passed up packs and bedding before being hauled up by the men.  Everyone had been breathing hard by the end of the first ‘stair’ but there had been a handful of fingers more to go!  At the end, they had passed as quietly as possible through what Ement had called a ‘cat door’.

What was a cat?

A pet, Ement gasped.

What is a pet?

Ement had not the breath to answer.

No starshine lit the last portion of their journey, for all they had made it in the depths of night.  No stars shone in the city.  They’d had no gourd light either; it had not been necessary, for there were strange orbs that hung low in the sky, emitting a clouded light.  As well, sometimes there had been flashing lights that passed quickly with a whoosh and a roar.

At least the noise stopped once they were all inside.  Well, not really.  The inside noises were different and a bit quieter.  Still, no one removed the bits of leaves they had used to plug their ears.

“How much further, Mage?”  White Flower whispered.  Ement couldn’t have heard, must have just guessed at her words, because he clucked encouragement and swept a hand out and up.

And up.  And up,

They’d made it finally.  Up the impossible stairs, down a long dark expanse, under a great large THING that cast an even darker shadow at the end of the long dark.  Then through a hole.  Ement dug the leaf bits out of his ears.  The rest did the same, in time to hear him say

“Again, I bid you all Well Come!”

 

 

It was such a vast space.  If they twisted and craned their necks, they could see the top end of the room far above.  There were yawning areas empty of anything, then places piled high with Giant’s THINGS.  Tables and chairs. Dishes, clothing.  Something called a ‘dresser’, though they saw no dresses.

There was a wonder like nothing they had ever seen, a big house, with Halftje-sized rooms!

“It is called a ‘dollhouse,” Ement explained as they crept through, cautiously exploring.  “A thing the Giant’s girl-child played with when she was young.  With this”.  He gestured to a thing lying on the floor.  A thing that looked like a Halftje, only smaller.  “No,” he assured Merwyn, “it never was alive, it is merely a plaything made in a Giant’s image.  They call it a ‘doll.  I have used some of the chairs in my own home.  Not too many; they are hard and no wise comfortable!”

Jatoc and Merwyn, after exploring as much as their tired bodies allowed, made a home for themselves a short distance from Ement’s.  Trodwen elected to stay with his fellow Mage, to give the little family as much time to spend with Ivine as possible, but also to learn more before he had to face the journey home alone.  Both Mages spent time with Ivine, teaching her what they could before she went to the place-of-no-hope in the deepest part of the city.

When the foodstuffs they had brought with them ran out, Ement introduced them to Chloe.

“This is a cat?!” Betany’s mouth was agape; her eyes round with wonder.  The others hung back a bit, but Betany sidled up to stand beside Ement.  “Why, she is almost as big as a forest robber and almost the same colour!  What’s that strange noise she makes?  It is very loud.  I’m glad to have stopped up my ears!”  True to his word, Ement had carved them all earplug, using a piece of silvery sharp to carefully shape each piece. Betany’s hand stretched out to touch a paw.

 

“She is very soft, though not like a robber at all.”

The rest watched, fascinated, as her tiny hand almost disappeared in the fur, the slowly moved back and forth.  The loud noise grew louder; the cat’s amber eyes closed to mere slits as the others came up to stroke any part they could reach.

:Chloe is my friend.  The noise she makes tells me she is happy.  She is also,”  here he grinned at the little group, “the best way I have found to get around in the Giant’s house,  Now, who wants to come with me to get some food?”

 

 

“Tis a magic thing, is it not?” Merwyn breathed in awe.  “How does it work?  What makes it so cold?  It is almost as cold as the Cold White, but there is no White!  Oh,” she laughed nervously, wringing her woven red forage bag in trembling hands.  So far, she had put nothing in it, leaving all the gathering to Ement and Betany.

Everything was so strange, from clambering aboard Chloe with two forage bags criss-crossed over her chest, to rumple-bumping swiftly down the stairs and down a long expanse into a room whose clickings and hummings made her ears hurt, even stopped up.  It was as though every forest insect she had ever met was singing out to her all at once.  She hadn’t been prepared at all when the cat, at a nudge from Ement, leapt from the floor to a chair, to a table, to a ledge of some kind with dizzying speed.  She might have tumbled off if Betany hadn’t grabbed her from behind.  Now her stomach quivered and rippled inside, churning like pond water in a storm.  Betany had to prise her fingers from the cat’s fur.  Merwyn could let go only for as long as it took her daughter to get the bags from her.  Betany patted Merwyn on a quaking shoulder, then slid off the cat to patter after Ement, leaving Merwyn alone.

A window above the ledge let in light from one of the strange globe things outside.  Ement had told them what it was called, but, at the moment, the word lay jumbled with many others in a word puzzle that she just couldn’t sort.  Merwyn sat there as the others put things in the bags.  Sat there as they scrambled on.  Sat there as the cat, not bothering with the table, jumped to the floor. Sat there waiting for her heart to start beating again, while Ement used what he called his ‘grapple’, attached to a length of white twine, to open a huge box that stood on the floor.  It sparkled silver in the strange light.  “Ooh,” she breathed at the gush of cold

Bethany hesitated only a beat before climbing after Ement, using the same hand and toe holds he did.  Ement had his piece of silvery sharp with him and used it t cut a sliver of this, a bit of that, putting what he gathered in his own forage bag, which he had made of the same white twine tied to his grapple, before passing things to Bethany to stow.

Chloe helped, keeping her paw on the white twine, holding it tight to keep the door from closing.

Only Merwyn did nothing.

Her cowardice shamed her.

*****

 

“This is called a grape,” Ement said, cutting into a roundish green thing with his silvery sharp.  When they all had a piece, he gestured again.  “This, the Giants call broccoli.  THAT is A-mond, this is ham.”  There was a feast spread out, foods that none but Ement had ever seen before, laid out on familiar acorn-cap plates.  The food, though strange, could all be eaten without cooking, a fact they all appreciated.  Well, except for the ham, which Ement assured them was already cooked.  A good thing, Leafmold thought, because he didn’t see how they could ever have a fire here.  For one thing, there was no firepit, nor was there a smokehole.  He liked the idea of foraging every day, though.  Their new home was fine, he would get used to it in time, but there just wasn’t that much to do.

Leafmold was young.  He wanted to be going.  To be doing.  Already, his muscles were softening, although he went three times a night to fetch water in the funny little buckets Mage Ement called thimbals, with their even funnier woven twine handles that twisted ‘round the buckets’ tops.

There was a lot of that twine in the odd room where he went to get the water-he’d used some of it himself to make rops to lower the buckets down from the big shiny thing that steadily dripped.  The water tasted different, not good like stream water fresh-cupped in his hands, or even like the melted cold white they relied on in thelast and first Turns of the Mark.  Ha!  Leafmold would ask the Mage if he could go with him to get the food.  Save Muti from going again.  She didn’t want to do it, he knew.  She was still quaking.

“Da, Muti, will we make music after we eat?”, he asked.  Leafmold was pleased to see his Muti smile.

*****

 

Downstairs, Mrs. Owen sat up in bed, poking her husband till he woke.

“What is that noise?  Sounds like singing.  Can’t you hear it?”

Mr. Owens propped himself up groggily on an elbow, listening hard.  “Mice,” he grunted, then flopped back down.

“MICE SING?”

“’Course they do, honey.  Go back to sleep.”

********

 

 

 

 

“Sorry, T’Char.”  Cautiously, Tevane approached her.  “This was all I could find.”  He handed the podsilk bag to her with a shaking hand.  Sylanna snatched it, upending it over the sleepfur she crouched on.  Two dead beetles.  Leaves and white flower buds from the big tree in the Giant’s  field.  Again.  She growled, baring her teeth at her pupil, then snatched a beetle, quickly stripping it’s legs and shell, sniffing it thoroughly to make sure it was freshly dead before biting into it.  She kicked the other one towards Tevane but gathered the leaves and buds to her.  If the quisling wanted more, let him go out into the wind and rain and get it.  Wasn’t like he had to climb the tree after all.  He just gathered the winds’ work off the ground.

Sylanna was not pleased.  Both rats and snakes had deserted her as she lay asleep in the sedge their first night in the city and would not come back.  She had not been able to attract any new creatures to her bidding, though she understood not how they could be so resistant to her great power.  She and her useless pupil had been forced to carry what they could and had had to scurry to stay on Trodwen’s trail.  Now they lived in the dark under the first set of ‘stairs’ (as she had heard Ement call them.)  She and Tevane had watched from a safe distance the little group’s ridiculous effort to get up those stairs.  Watched as they disappeared.  They had not come out again.  No matter.  She had found a hole in the wood around the stairs; there, she and Tevane had set up their belongings.  There were gaps that let the rain in.  Skittery critters that ignored her call.  She was cold and hungry.  Still, no matter.  Sylanna would stay here.  Soon, Ivine would have to leave.  Sylanna had heard enough of the little group’s conversations to understand that it was Ivine who would lead Sylanna where she needed to be.

Then her work would begin.

 

 

CHAPTER IX

 

Ivine shouldered her small pack quietly.  Not much in it. Food to last a few Dayrises; a change of clothing.  Some of Muti’s healing balms.  A pair of voleskin slippers with very thick soles that White Flower had sewed warmed her feet.  Her squirrel skin robe was rolled and tied to the pack.  Plugs firmly in her ears.

She was ready.  The last while had been spent learning-how to forage in the city.  Practicing the healing arts.  Learning how to hide.  How to protect herself.  How to call the strange city creatures to her.

Time to go.

She grabbed handsful of the cat’s hair.  Hoisted herself up and let Chloe carry her down the stairs while cold tears of loneliness and heartbreak rolled down her cheeks.

Night had just nudged itself firmly into position.  No stars, never any stars to see in this city, but plenty of light.  Still, Ivine kept to the shadows as much as possible.  Ement had pointed her in the direction she must go, even, on other nights, walking part of the distance with her as they mapped her path.  For the exercise, the Mage had said, but mostly, Ivine knew, so that she would gain confidence walking the cold stone way.

It was quiet, the air was warm.  Why then was she shivering?  Why was a tilch of fear tickling through her, making her feel like untolds of ants were racing from the top of her head to the ends of her toes?  She HAD to be brave!  Surely none of the Mages had ever felt like they wanted to bury their Calling in the dirt and leave it to freeze  until it was dead.  If everyone were as fearful as she, why, there would be no healers, no Mages.  It was wrong to question her life path when the Dreams had been so clear.  Yet she could not help how she felt.  All very well for her to show brave when relating her Dreams to everyone.  Well for her to show so very brave on the journey.  She had fooled the others but could not lie to herself, not when her innards shook like a half-cooked pan of redbreast eggs.

A slight vibration at her feet had Ivine looking down at the same time as she eased a plug part way out of one ear.  A night chirruper sat on her slipper, rubbing its back legs together in a cheerful song.

“Well, Little Chirrup, you don’t seem bothered by the din that is assaulting my ears.”The whoose and clank of the big metal animals on the wide-wide-wide cold path to the side of her was frightening.  However long she lived, Ivine thought that she would never get used to these monsters. It wasn’t just the noise.  Their huge eyes were an unblinking scary burn as they swept past, seeming to be flying without wings.  Oh, yes, Mage Ement had warned her about these things, to stay away from their path, just as he had taught her to become nearly invisible, dodging into shadows to avoid the Giant’s big feet that could smoosh a Halftje flat and not even notice.

Ivine knelt down so that she was at eye level with the little creature.  It’s antennae quivered as it looked at her almost expectantly, she thought, then shook her head at her own whimsy.  “Are you here to keep me company and show me the way?” she whispered softly, then was knocked back on her heels in surprise when it’s antennae bobbled fiercely, for all the worlds like it was nodding.  The Chirrup turned then, hopping one pace, then two, before turning back to Ivine and waiting.

THIS was new.  Slowly, so as not to startle the little thing, Ivine rose to her feet.  “All right.  If you are willing to lead, I will follow.”

They weren’t talking, not exactly.  She didn’t understand the Little Chirrup the way she understood her woodland friends, but, if the Mages were right, she would, in time.  In the meantime, having company on the journey would be wonderful. 

Ivine settled her pack firmly and squared her shoulders.  “One foot in front of the other.  One step at a time.”

 

The earplug went back in.

“So. Little Chirrup, do you have a name that you would share with me?”

********

 

In the deep shadows, Sylanna and Tevane followed.

**********

 

Not too far behind Tevane and his T’Char, another small figure stood and watched, hands on hips, contemplating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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