Lethonomica

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
Two mapmakers enter a forest, which they soon find has mysterious, sinister powers over their memories and behavior.

Submitted: July 29, 2008

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Submitted: July 29, 2008

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Lethonomica
or
Artos and Yru

Two travelers guided their horses to the edge of the grassy ridge, allowing the animals to slow and come to a gentle halt, which all four souls seemed to agree upon without communicating. The sun was low, and there was a sharp, chilly edge to the breeze.

“What do you think, Artos?” the female rider said after a few moments’ pause. “Should we set up here and get a fresh start tomorrow?”

Both the worn hoods, the gray, slightly pointed one of the lady and thedeep bluedome of the knight, were set toward the hazy-looking border of the valley they overlooked. At its edge was a vast forest of pine, oak and rowan , a veritable gem for the map-makers, who had long been traveling borderlands in a quest to fill in the blank spaces on the edges of their lord’s maps. The task was official in name but pleasurable for them both, and they were keen, being young and in love with the life of an adventurer, to finally begin exploring unfamiliar territory. But the red sun was rapidly slipping behind those distant treetops, and it made much more sense to parallel the new day with a new chapter in their budding adventure, so the young man swung of his horse.

“That seems fit—it will be dark soon, and the horses could use a rest.”

In companionable silence, both began the familiar evening ritual of setting up camp, but by the time Artos had unsaddled his mount, chosen a site for the fire, and relieved himself of his pack, his partner was still standing by the ridge, stroking her mare’s nose in a distracted fashion and staring across the valley.

“Yru?”

She turned around, and her eyes showed that her mind was slowly coming back to her body.

“Are you coming?”
“Right…” the woman said, and made for the campsite. “How much flatbread is left?”
Her voice carried over the valley, and made a minute sparrow perched in an oak at the edge of the wood turn his quick head. The mundane objects of their conversation contrasted with, but did not really relieve the eerie feeling she had perceived about the black-trunked forest. While Artos spoke excitedly of plotting, trailblazing, and the building or ruins they might find the next day, Yru found it strangely difficult to share his enthusiasm—when she, with her cheerful, romantic, story-telling side, usually exceeded it. Tonight, the mist about the ground near these particular trees, their stillness, their very presence over her shoulder unsettled her.
But the pair had been traveling for a long time to get this far, away from their documented world. Yru told herself that she was probably just travel-weary.
***
And as a matter of fact, Yru did feel much better in the morning. This vast wood would be the first significant piece of new information the young semi-officials would be able to add to the maps; it was even a possibility that the pair would choose a name for the forest, if it turned out to be uninhabited.As they broke camp, now a near-seamless operation, a chattery mood overtook them and simple excitement sped their chores and short journey across the valley. At the threshold of the forest, Artos halted Yru.
“Milady,” he said ceremoniously, drawing his horse next to hers. He took her hand. “Shall we?” He held her hand up high and flat on his palm, like a curled and perfumed pageboy escorting a visiting princess. In fact, he would have looked quite courtly if not for the goofy grin on his face. Yru played along.
“Do lets—in the name of the king.”
“Hail Rohnwilde Seventh!” they both said. Guiding the horses with their knees and sitting straight, they took a few slow steps, like officersin a parade, as if the opening of this wood was a grand and monumentous event.Then they laughed and went ahead normally, scouting about for landmarks. The wood received them silently.
***
And then a strange thing happened to both of them. For several days it they were busy, marking streams and scouting trails, noting the geography. Then both explorers began to feel an odd lassitude, a lack of interest in the little games they used to give into, alone and free-spirited in the wild. Yru climbed fewer trees, and Artos stopped giving impromptu sword lessons with sticks and branches. The pair chatted less, too, which was especially unusual. They had been raised practically together and usually filled every day with alternately coquettish teasing and brotherly companionship. Neither woodsman spoke about this gradual drift between them; in fact, an outsider would have thought they didn’t notice it themselves, but just kept fighting through the thickening forest, through the mist that came in the morning and never fully faded until late in the afternoon. Then they would sit around their smaller and smaller campfire, making notes on the day’s work, or, eventually, sitting in long stretches of silence in that oddly still wood.
***
One night several weeks into the forest, Artos looked up from the vellum into which he had been staring blankly. He opened his mouth to speak. Across the sparks, Yru raised her eyes to show that she was listening… her expression was dull. And Artos just frowned, closed his mouth, opened it again, and gave up. Yru did not have the energy to find this suspicious. But for the life of him, Artos had not been able to remember the name of the woman he had been falling in love with.
***
“Companion,” he called to her, from the other side of a large rock. “I’ve found a spring. That stream comes back up over here. Let’s refill our skins before we mark it.” He began to fill his leather waterskin with the cold spring water, but was distracted when his horse, which he had been leading by the reins, began to nicker and pull away from him.
“Gerroff it!” he muttered bad-temperedly, jerking the wandering head back into alignment. It was unlike the solid old beast to be as churlish as it had been, but perhaps it was it was unhappy with its master—it was even more unusual that the knight was harsh with his mount.
Meanwhile, Yru was fixing a tie on one of her boots, kneeling by the stump of a huge beech that had been evidently struck lightening some time ago. A rare patch of sunlight wavered over her for just a moment, and as the weak light pierced the fog around her ankles, a dim perception struggled to break into her mind.
“A good idea… Artos.” She had to reach for his name, but when she remembered it, she purposefully said it aloud.
***
Weeks went by, and the pair traveled over halfway through the forest, which by now they should have noticed contained no deer, few squirrels, and even fewer birds. No minnows darted in the stream, no frogs plopped by its muddy sides; there were even fewer clouds of insects than they were used to. They should have noticed this, but they did not. By now their behavior was so odd that, had they been in a town like this, they would have been either locked away as madmen, or plucked from the streets to serve as practice subjects for apprentice mages, looking to test their budding transformation skills on anything to weak or stupid to object. Yru did not speak at all. Her long rolls of parchment and vellum disintegrated, if one were to unroll them and trace a rough timeline of their journey, from maps and sketches, to simple lines, to written words—or rather, one word, written in clusters like trees, invading her notes on landmarks and terrain, and eventually, filling up the entire sheet, in neat and unstoppable rows like an invading army… Artos… Artos...
Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos
Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos Artos…
***
“Woman!” he called. Yru looked up from her writing. The man—no! Artos! She had to remember!—Artos was wandering away from the horse he had just dismounted. He hadn’t unsaddled it, and the animal looked like it had been poorly treated: his mouth was covered with foam, and steam was rising from his heaving sides. Why had Artos ridden him so hard? He had just been going for firewood… which he now slung into her carefully arranged pile of kindling.
“Woman! Calm that damn beast!”
Yru rushed over to his jet-black mount, the animal that she had seen him care for like a pet and depend on like a brother-in-arms. When the human got too close, he reared on his hind legs and screamed; Yru could see the whites of his eyes.
“What did you do to him?”
“He wouldn’t obey!” Artos spat, panting and spilling the water he had been guzzling. “Like he forgot everything… he took off!” he raged, apoplectic at the horse’s disobedience. Turning his back, Artos cursed the animal, using uncivilized, ugly words.
Yru made a grab for the reins, but missed. Then she had to dive to the ground to avoid a flying hoof.
“Artos—Artos! Help me!” But Artos just sat by the woodpile and stared. Yru couldn’t even remember the horse’s name to croon to him. She tried some calming words, but with a final wild, shrill whinny, the horse turned and bolted away, empty stirrups jolting with every step, crashing madly through the brush and dead leaves. This roused Artos—he shrieked in frustration and threw a stick at the retreating rump. He threw it hard. Yru stared at him for a moment, before going to her own horse.
Her chestnut mare nickered anxiously as Yru approached. Heedless, the woman swung on, bareback, and grabbed the reins that had bound the creature to a tree. Digging her boot heels into the animal’s sides, she shot after Artos’ black horse, but before they had gone a garden’s length, Yru knew something was wrong. Her horse—for a moment, the thought that she couldn’t recall this one’s name either slipped across the top of her buzzing brain—had taken off too suddenly, before her tactile command. Then the mare did not obey her firm tugs to the right, but went in the opposite direction. She slowed, despite her rider’s insistence, hesitated a bit, pawing the ground impatiently, and then galloped away. Yru yelled—she could feel herself slipping off the undulating, muscular back. She was holding on to the reins—and the mane—for dear life when suddenly she felt a sharp kick below her… she rose in the air and saw a confused tangle of foliage… then she felt a hot bar of pain through one shoulder and all sense of motion halted abruptly. Her normally gentle, obedient horse, the one chosen for a lady rider, had thrown her. She could see the horse, a streak of shining brown in the fading afternoon light, still galloping. Yru groaned, then slowly got up. Now she realized that her left knee hurt almost as much as her shoulder, and that ear was ringing as well. She began to limp back toward her pack, her medicine pouch, and her waterskins, side aching with every breath, legs shivering childishly with nerves and pain. As she neared the campsite, her partner got up and approached her quickly. Yru thought that he might be concerned for her, and was at the point of telling him that she wasn’t badly hurt, when—bam!—he slapped her hard across the face. Yru gasped; now both ears were buzzing, and one of her eyes hurt. He hit her again.
“Our only mounts!” he yelled at her. Yru stood, stunned, as he turned away from her and stomped toward the fire. A tear darted down one hot cheek—what had happened to her partner, her friend, the knight she looked up to? Was he gone forever, leaving this lazy, violent beast as her only companion? A word struggled to find its way to Yru’s tongue, like a bubble trying to break the surface of a viscous liquid.
“…Artos…?”
***
After the horses left, Artos got even worse. He stopped caring for himself; his beard and hair grew long and tangled, and his clothes became stiff and ragged. He no longer set up camp, but slept where he dropped every night. For a few days, Yru tried to do it herself, but the task was too much for her—and Artos woke with the sun, not usually bothering himself to make sure she was behind him beforehe began the day’s journey. They were still walking on, mutely, not even looking around, following the stream without, it seemed, knowing or caring why. But however bad a companion he was, Yru thought (she was pretty sure of this) that he was better than traveling alone. She had been noticing large, deep tracks around the water for the past couple of nights: dog-like pads, with five deep holes, like puncture marks, just in front of each rounded depression. Wolves. And though Yru had a hunting knife, Artos had a sword.
So they continued together, each devolving into a lesser form of themselves. Artos, once a proud knight in Rohnwilde’s service, an educated, brave, and gallant young man, became a shaggy animal, with little regard for anything besides food and sleep. And Yru, her parents’ only daughter, a bright, spiritual thing, became a gaunt shell, mostly dumb but for the one word she hung on to (and which was becoming harder and harder to recall). She stopped trying to record anything on her once-precious maps, and did not raise a word of protest or concern that their mission was falling by the wayside, but instead followed Artos obediently, sheep-like, all day.She walked when and where he walked, and stopped when he stopped, and slept on the hard ground near him. Sometimes Artos stared at her after she had fallen asleep, but his look was different than the concerned, frightened glances she had been stealing at him, before she seemed to stop caring.
One night Artos sunk to his lowest state yet. It was evening, and the sun, which disappeared very early in the close woods, cast a ruddy glow over the entire scene—a light that would have revealed the red tint in Artos’ brown hair, Yru vaguely thought, had it been less matted. The man (half-man) seemed to be settling down for the night, so Yru decided to try to make a fire; they hadn’t had one for days, and she was beginning to wake up chilled. As she gathered some dry sticks and set wearily to work with her flint, Artos crept over to her. Focused on the stubborn spark that was refusing to light, she did not notice him until he was directly in front of her, on the other side of her kindling. Suddenly he spoke.
“Woman,” his voice was harsh from disuse. “Come here.”
Yru slowly looked up.
“What do you want… ah… friend?”She did not move. The flint was still in her hands; she was frozen in the act of striking it. They stared at each other. A dead branch fell down a long way away and made a soft noise… the wind rustled the leaves. Then Artos stepped around Yru’s pathetic little bundle of twigs, seized her by the arm, pulled her to her feet, and kissed her. Yru’s startled cry was strangled in her throat; she pulled away, but his arms were around her waist.
“Brother, stop! Artos!”
But he pushed his mouth against hers, forcing his sour breath into her as his beard scraped against her skin. His hands started to move aside her clothing. Yru continued to struggle—he smelled like a homeless person, like the ditches in the city they had passed through together, and that made her cry as much as anything else. Yru’s hand found the knife at her waist. She pulled it and struck her beloved on the temple with the butt of the weapon. Artos grunted; she hit him again and her waist was free of the hard arms that had trapped her. Sobbing, Yru ran several yards in the direction she had come, before she stopped to look over her shoulder. Artos was standing exactly where she had left him. He looked after her, lingered for a moment, and then seemed to decide that it wasn’t worth it. Rubbing his head, he wandered away.
As the sun sank lower, Yru edged nearer and nearer to her pack (it contained almost all of their remaining food, not to mention her cloak and waterskin). When she was close enough to grab it, she did, and was prepared to run away again, but Artos showed no interest in her—he looked at her a little, then lay down in his cloak. Soon he was snoring. So Yru, keeping her eyes on him, settled down, started the fire, warmed herself, and ate a little, before laying to sleep…but with the knife in her hand, curled closely, protectively, to her body. When she woke, she was lying just as she had been, and Artos was drinking from the stream, kneeling by the bank on all fours. Yru found herself safe, exactly as she had been the night before—legs tucked under her, fingers tightly wrapped around her weapon, and neck wet with tears.
***
The trees began to thin. To Yru this was another dim perception, and she knew, without realizing any kind of significance to the fact, that the woods were ending. To Artos, it meant nothing. Neither of them changed their pace or habits, even though the huge wolf tracks were becoming more and more common.
And one day, they came to a wall. Yru was trudging along, eyes on her feet, thinking of nothing, when she realized that Artos was not moving. She looked at him dully. He was staring to one side, looking fixedly at something in the distance.
“Brother?”
He did not respond. Yru turned and looking in the direction he was gazing; a few seconds later, she realized what she was looking at. A wall of light-colored stone ran along the edge of the wood, up, down, as far as Yru’s eyes could see. Then she perceived a gate—a black iron gate, it seemed, like one in front of a noble family’s country home or an important building, sitting there purposefully. And a person, tiny from this distance, but unmistakable, was standing next to it.
The pair exchanged glances, then looked back toward the wall. Beside the gate—yes, that’s what it was, it had to be a gate—the barely visible human seemed to be raising his arm in greeting. They kept walking. As they came nearer, they saw that the gatekeeper wore a long cloak against the autumnal chill, and kept his hood up. Yru looked at Artos again, but he was walking steadily, purposefully, toward the stranger. He did not seem afraid, but Yru was nervous. They had not seen any signs of life in the entire area of the woods they had covered, and they had been walking for—a month? Two? Forever? She could not quite recall—but she was sure she had never seen so much as a hint of human life around here. Suddenly, they were in front of the stranger and his wall, which proved to be about shoulder-height. Yru could glimpse a green, flat field through the open spaces of the pretty gate, and suddenly felt a deep and urgent longing to be there, instead of this damp, silent, dark forest. Then a deep and resonant voice broke that silence, and Yru tore her gaze away.
“Greetings,” the stranger said, still standing at his post. “I hope I find you well.” His voice was cool and even, not as friendly as his words, but very clear. “Do you wish to pass out of my forest?”
“Yes.”
Yru heard Artos’ reply, sudden, firm. She looked at his face; his eyes were fixed on the field beyond. His stance seemed different: more upright, more controlled. A light was returning to his eyes—wasn’t it? And his voice was clear.
“Very well. I’ll be happy to let you pass. But you must answer one thing for me… step forward, friend.”
Artos did as he was told, his eyes still darting toward the meadow that was mostly hidden from his view. A hint of a sweet, cool breeze was blowing through the dark twists of the gate. Yru’s heart stirred.
“What is your name?” the gatekeeper asked slowly.
Artos was very still.
“Sir knight? What is your name?”
“My—my name… is…” Artos was whispering, wracking his brain. Yru tried to stir herself. His name… she could help him… if she could just remember it…
“What? No name?” The gatekeeper, although his face was still hidden, seemed to be smirking. “You do know what happens when a man hasn’t a name, don’t you?”
Artos, moving as though he were underwater, shook his head.
“He has no soul,” the cloaked, happy figure said. “No name, no spirit, see?” With this strange sentence, he stepped forward a little. Yru’s heart was pounding so hard it hurt her. The stranger continued, his voice still silky and calm.
“And if you have no soul… no god can claim you as his loss.”
Then the gatekeeper removed his cloak. Yru’s body seemed to curl in on itself, and she wanted to scream, but her throat was frozen.
The gatekeeperwas not a man. He had the form of one, from the waist up, anyway, but his skin was as black as jet, as the starless night in these cursed woods. His face was deformed and animal-like, but free of hair; his teeth were pointed like a dog’s, and his head was completely bald. His legs ended in terrible wolf paws, and his hands had claws. He was obscenely real, impossible but there, standing calmly, allowing the horrified travelers to take in every detail of his awful presence. They could see the hairs on his legs and smell the odor of his body—he was not like a flat, inked monster in a drawing or a glass window; he was as valid, as existent as they were. The only clothing the devil wore under his cloak were short black breeches, made of no leather Yru could—or wanted to—recognize, and held up with a similar belt, through which was stuck a long, unsheathed, unadorned dagger. He began to smile, and his gums were horribly red against the black lips.
“You were marked as mine in a blood pact signed before your great-great-grandfather was born, meat!”
The beast moved in on the man, who drew his sword—but then dropped it with a yell. The handle was glowing, red-hot. The gatekeeper laughed, then licked his burned-looking lips as the knight stood there, trembling. Yru was still waiting for the wave of terror that had risen inside her when the devil had taken off his cloak to crest, but it kept mounting and mounting.
“No… no.. please…” she murmured impotently. Why couldn’t she remember his name… he was important, somehow, that much she remembered, she should know his name! “Artos… no..” Then she stiffened.
Artos!
The knight looked at her, curiously.
“Artos! Please—Artos! You must remember—Artos, Artos!
He looked away from the woman, toward the devil that was approaching him, utilitarian blade in hand. Yru kept frantically shouting his name.
“Artos…” a whisper came from his throat. The gatekeeper paused.
“My name is Artos,” Artos said, calmly, even though his legs were visibly shaking. “Yes… my… my name is Artos.” Behind the creature, the gate sprang open.
The beast stared into his eyes. Artos did not blink. Growling, the monster turned its head. His black eyes, like empty holes in white sockets, fell on Yru.
“And you?” he barked.
“Um,” Yru said. Artos’ eyes grew wide. The woman’s mind raced. Her name? But—but she knew Artos’… that was what she had guarded… her name?
The beast chuckled, advancing on a new victim.
“What, deary… don’t you have a name? You don’t, do you… no, you never did.”
Yru’s mind, while it had raced before, now sat helplessly and buzzed. Her name?
“You have no mother, no baptism, no existence. You can admit it to me, sweetheart… you never had a name.”
Her body was shaking, her mind blank, her mouth dry with fear. Her name, her name… come now… her own name! Hadn’t Mother called her in from the garden using her name, hanging out of that window with the crooked shutter… hadn’t her friends summoned her to play with a name? She could see faces, see mouths moving, but couldn’t hear the word they called that meant her. She had a name, didn’t she… she could remember having one, once! But her mouth could not form it.
She looked blankly toward the devil, slowly advancing on her, met Artos’ terrified eyes, and saw the bright blade approaching her. She must’ve written in down somewhere…
“…Artos...?” she whispered uncertainly. The beast laughed.
“No, no, that’s his name. The only one you saved, is it? Well, that’s too bad.”
Artos looked away, back to the shining field behind the gate.
And he ran to it.
“Artos was another… he’s gone now,” the beast said with mild interest. The only thing that could tear the woman’s eyes from that terrible face was the sight of Artos’ back, Artos crashing through the unlocked gate, Artos leaving her forever. The gate swung shut behind him, and a heavy thunk told her it had locked itself again. He was saved, and she was doomed, it was all over now…
“And you only saved his name… you won’t remember your own, my pet, not ever… however long we play with this pretty knife, however many times I ask you…” The devil licked his lips, slurping moisture back into his wet, red mouth. His arm shot out, and Yru felt a blinding pain, an acidic burn, and warm blood gushing down her cheek to bathe her neck. With tear-filled eyes, she looked away, to get a last glimpse of the field, the sky, and Artos… he was in the field.. he was waving his arms and shouting… he hadn’t left her… the beast laughed and struck her other cheek. Yru screamed. He was only holding, pressing, stroking the blunt side of his knife against her skin, but the steel burned her so badly… then Artos’ shouts began to reach her ear. If she could only make it out… what was he saying? Artos ran toward the wall and launched himself over it. His lips were moving constantly… she traced their movement as the devil raised his arm for a new blow…
Yru took a deep breath…


“MY NAME IS YRU, DAUGHTER OF FIONNTACH AND YDRIL, SERVANT OF GOD AND KING ROHNWILDE SEVENTH!”
The beast froze, his arm still raised, his face contorted in fury. He yelled, bellowed, roared, and shook, but arm stayed upraised. Yru felt that she could not move, but she didn’t have to. Artos took her hand and ran out through the unlocked gate; the travelers heard the thwack of the devil’s blade against a tree, and they heard his rage, but they did not worry… the gate was shut, he was bound, and they were in the sweet, bright open field, under a blue sky once more. They ran for as long as their weakened legs could stand to, and then they were in each other’s arms—only for a moment, though, because Artos collapsed to his knees, arm around Yru’s waist, and buried his face in her travel robes.
“Forgive me,” he gasped. “Yru, thank you… please forgive me… forgive me!”
Yru panted, catching her breath, and dropped a hand on top of his head. Wordlessly, she shut her eyes, and stroked his matted hair.
***
“Lethonomica?” the lean, grey-haired man read from a finished and decorated map, still fragrant of ink and leathery vellum. Adjusting his emerald velvet tunic, he glanced up at the knight standing attentively in front of his desk. “Explain this name, friend. I’m afraid I spent more time on the training fields than my father’s library. Is it called after some mythological place—is it a historical reference?”
Sir Artos of Whitehall exchanged glances with his travelling companion, a young woman whose beauty was, depending on the beholder, either cruelly marred or honorably dignified by a warlike scar across one cheek.
Although their journey back home had been eventful by villagers’ standards, compared to their previous adventure it was positively boring. The first night, they slept in the field, where Artos did his best to tend Yru’s wound. Then they made a wide circle of the cursed woods to return home. Provisions ran low for a while, and the weather grew steadily colder, but they found a village where the king’s official seal got them some supplies and a free pair of beds for a several nights. A story was invented about an encounter with a highway robber to explain Yru’s scarring cheek (Artos told everyone who would listen how she bested the robber in a magnificent dual, with no help at all from him). After much discussion, the two marked their re-created maps with a dangerous rocky ledge, and then a boring, infertile valley where the forest was. They decided that a warning, no matter how dire, would only encourage would-be heroes to charge into the woods in droves, to an unknowable fate.
“It’s something of a joke, sire,” the knight replied. “The valley provided us so dull a journey that, several times, my betrothed and I simply forgot any name we were thinking to give the place.”
The king laughed, cutting short his knight with a promise to provide him with a quest more worthy of a perilous adventurer next time. With a wink, the old campaigner said that he understood the younger man’s feelings.
“Thank you, sire,” the knight said. “The valley’s name was in reference to that quality. You see, Lethonomica is crafted from words in the scholars’ tongue meaning…”
He glanced at Yru.
“Forgive me, sire, she is the wordsmith; she deserves the credit and not I.”
The king nodded graciously at the young woman, giving her permission to speak.
“‘Forgetfulness of Names,’ ” she supplied.


© Copyright 2017 Caitlin Dunley. All rights reserved.

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