Long after this time has passed,
long after fools breathe their last,
long after waters shimmer here,
long after the mists still appear,
long after blood washed away,
long after the curse shall stay,
long after trees grow all around,
long after the last, shall be found.
– Folk Lore of Avrale, Book II circa 510 E.R.
Into the Forest
Coria 40th, 647 E.R.
Sunlight filtered through the trees, and shone upon a young woman with long raven hair. She sat against a tall ancient pine, her face and brown robes bloodied and smudged with dirt. She was a mess, and as the comfort of oblivion slowly slipped away, it took a moment for her to notice she was not alone. Not a dozen paces away a large silver furred wolf was eyeing her suspiciously.
The sight startled her fully awake, and too her feet. Her emerald eyes glinted as intimidatingly as the wolf’s, and though some instincts in her might have been prepared, consciously she was only frightened. She strained her injured shoulder scrambling up, and yelped when the pain caught up with her. This startled the wolf in turn, which backed away, snarled, and when it felt it had enough distance ran off.
Kiannae was her name. Freckle faced, and on the pale side for a girl of Avrale. She was a bit more than a girl truly, and such distinctions easily belied her knowledge, power, and the follies she had been both witness and party to. She watched the wolf go uneasily, and questioned her sanity for having wandered into deep woods in the dead of night, and thereafter fallen asleep.
Her mental state was indeed in question. Sorrow and madness hovered around the edges, dogged close behind by guilt and prophecy. Not for the first time she considered that she should return, that she should face the world she had left behind. Yet what lay behind was intolerable to even consider. The cold eyes of those she had failed, to see her twin sister’s broken body, as sure a mirror of herself dead as any could ever encounter. To be blamed, to be held to account for having…what…she wasn’t even sure. Was it that she listened to prophecy? Was that her crime? The pain and absurdity of it was laughable.
She had ignored one prophecy, and listened to another. She had saved the man who would scold and scorn her, and had lost the other half of her very being, her twin, her blood. She loved her mentor, he had been like a father to her, in fact as much as law. That however made her all the less prepared to face him, and she hated him all the more for the words she imagined coming out of his mouth. So she hated, and scorned herself instead. He would not get the satisfaction.
It was to save Laurel that the twins had risked their lives. To always defend others. They had pledged it to one another, but that answered none of their crimes of foolishness, not really. Why had she done it, why had her sister…why had she run? In the cold light of day the whole thing seemed like an implausible dream, ending in a nightmare.
For the first time Kiannae wondered if it had all been for nothing. She considered that after everything else, she had panicked, and ran. If panic was even the word for it, she didn’t have better. It was a madness that had driven her, tried to claw her skull apart from the inside. It had burned, ached, and clouded out every thought. It was almost as though something was screaming run, yet every comprehensible part of it had been the prophetic words of a woman long dead. It didn’t matter, Laurel could have still died on that mountain, and it was all for nothing. Everything for nothing…
She rejected the possibility, even as it threatened to bring her again to her knees. Laurel was more capable, and yet the vision had shown him dead before. She pushed aside the thought, but it settled all the more firmly in the back of her mind. One more reason she could never turn back, she could never face what lay behind her. If she could ever even understand why she had done it.
Kiannae nursed her injured shoulder, and still leaned against the tree. She began once more trying to heal it properly, letting her gift flow into torn muscles. She looked around, searching for which way she had come, but everything was different in the filtered daylight. A dislodged clump of matted needles finally gave her some bearings, as she vaguely recalled slipping, and falling before she had crawled up to the tree, and passed out.
Convinced that her shoulder was noticeably improved, her parched throat came to the forefront of competing imperatives. She had no water, and saw none immediately around. Though she was not sure she could bring herself to drink water from the forest floor. ‘Foolish girl,’ a small mocking voice rang out in the back of her head, it wasn’t quite Laurel’s, but it might as well have been. She pushed off of the tree, and pressed on, moving away from the mark of the previous night’s fall, and farther into the deep wood.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Kiannae walked for hours, and save the rise and fall of the terrain it was quickly all the same, and her thirst only grew. At last she came to the side of a small pool of water resting in rocky outcropping. There was something odd about the water, out of place. She sniffed it curiously as she looked closer. It seemed clear, and clean, and she convinced herself that such incongruent purity amongst the moss, dirt, and bugs of the forest was what was odd. She imagined to herself that it was a good thing.
Her hands were filthy she realized as she was about to take the clear water up in them. There were other smaller pools in surrounding divots of the rock. They also seemed clear. She rinsed her hands in one of those, and returned to the largest again. Tentatively she cupped her hands, and brought some of the water up, but hesitated to drink it.
Kiannae considered it once again in her pale scratched palms, and off the dark stone. It was clear, perfect, refracting only her own dirty state. Convinced the water was as clean and pure as it appeared, Kiannae took a sip, and as it hit her parched throat she was determined that it was the most glorious thing she had ever tasted. She lay down on her stomach, and drank until she could hold no more, then rolled over.
She lay staring up at the sky. Trees had grown sparsely around the clearing. The stone was too hard, and unforgiving, which her back attested too as well. She watched the clouds drift by, and tried to forget everything, but eventually the hard uneven stone convinced her to sit up. She took one last sip of the water, and washed her face. For want of a container to take more with her she reluctantly got up, and walked on, leaving the pool behind.
It was not long however before even a belly full of water no longer hid Kiannae’s growing hunger. She pondered several suspicious berry bushes, until she found one she knew to be blackberry, and ate those until she began to feel sick from the sweetness. She longed for meat, or bread, and idly considered trying to hunt. The kill certainly would not be difficult for her, but the thought of trying to butcher and prepare whatever she killed quickly ended whatever remained of her appetite.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 41st, 647 E.R.
Kiannae woke in the night from a chill, and huddled more tightly in her robes. Some dark part of her wished she had taken Katrisha’s robe when she ran, but the thought made her physically ill as soon as it had formed in her head. She spiraled again, she wanted to die, she didn’t want to live without her sister. A twisted part of her mind imagined setting herself ablaze amidst the forest and letting the trees fall in upon her, and crush her. That – she thought – at least would be warm, and she laughed grimly.
Survival instincts pulled Kiannae from her dark revelry as a twig snapped not far away. She glanced around frantically but could see nothing by the dim moonlight filtered through the trees. At last she caught a vague silhouette moving in the mist, and instinctively she shuffled away from it, even as she tried to make out what it was. It moved like a person, staying just out of sight in the fog. This at once was reassuring – it wasn’t wolves – and terrifying, for a person could be even more dangerous.
At last sense came to Kiannae and she struck out her hand, and a ball of blue light shimmered into being. She made it as bright as she could until at last its glow reached the boy standing only a few quick paces away. It was a boy, it struck her decidedly, as he was quite naked, and barely older than her by the look of him. She blinked in disbelief at the sight, and then he was gone, replaced only by shifting mist. Kiannae shook her head, closed her eyes. She looked again, trying to convince herself she had even seen the boy. She got to her feet, and walked to where he had stood, looked around again, but found nothing.
Kiannae moved back to her tree, and stood there troubled, searching the night with her unnerved gaze. She accepted that a part of her had gone stark raving mad, but she wondered if she had even begun to see things. Minutes of scanning the surrounding forest revealed nothing, and at last the chill of the night began to overtake dwindling fear. She gathered twigs, and fallen branches, still ever vigilant for a glimpse of a strange naked boy in the mist.
At last convinced she had enough for a fire Kiannae considered the thick mat of pine needles that covered everything. Deciding she was no longer fond of the idea of burning, or taking the forest with her, she set to digging a small pit down to the soil to make her fire safely. Digging with her hands quickly grew intolerable, and instead she started trying to push the needles aside with her shoes. At last growing frustrated with that as well, she tried to blast it away with magic, which worked, but sprayed her with the filth of the forest floor.
Kiannae cursed, and growled as she tried to brush the fresh dirt from her robe, face and hair. Vaguely more comfortable with the improvement to her cleanliness, she set about piling sticks and twigs together in the small pit. The hard part done Kiannae simply set the pile aflame, and sat warming her dirty hands in the fire light with faint satisfaction.
For a while she managed to lose herself in watching the flame, and as the last of her scarce firewood was nearly burned up, she began to drift back off. Her eyes slowly closed, and she almost did not notice the gradually approaching form in darkness. Perhaps she simply didn’t care, but as the boy stepped clearly into the fire light, her eyes snapped back open. He paused, seeming to consider her cautiously.
She struggled to decide what bothered her more, his unexpected presence, the fact he was naked, or at last it struck her that his skin had a strange indistinct color. He seemed almost iridescent in the fading firelight. The moment passed, and he simply sat opposite her without a word, and continued to look at her quizzically.
They sat in silence as the embers of the fire started to die down, and before she was left in the dark with the unknown young man, Kiannae finally resolved herself to ask, “Who are you?”
The boy simply cocked his head to the side. Kiannae squinted at him in frustration. “It’s not polite to walk up on a lady in the forest…naked…”
Still no response followed, save that after a moment he cocked his head to the other side.
Kiannae scowled. “It’s even less polite to refuse to speak when spoken to…” More silence followed, and Kiannae began to grow very agitated. “Who, in the King’s name are you?” she yelled as she leaned forward and shook her arms for emphasis.
This the boy reacted to, but only by scooting backwards, and looking frightened, as though he was about to flee.
Kiannae dropped her face to her hands in exasperation. She considered the complete obtuseness of the situation, and realized that when presented with a naked boy in the depths of the forest primeval, it was worth considering that he did not understand her language. He wasn’t Sylvan, whatever he was, but if he knew a language it was probably theirs – one that she scarcely remembered the sound of in her father’s voice, let alone any meaning.
Steeling herself to that thought, she looked up to insure the strange naked boy remained. He seemed on edge still, and she made a point of gesturing firmly to herself. “Kiannae,” she said clearly as she could.
The boy seemed more curious than understanding, but seemed to relax again. “Kiannae,” she repeated tapping her chest, then gestured to the boy, “you?” she questioned. He cocked his head to the side again, and Kiannae did all she could not to snap at him. At last he put his hands before him, cupped them, and feigned taking a drink. Kiannae dropped her head to her hands once more, and shook it hopelessly. When she looked up again the boy craned his head forward, as thought to emphasize the gesture, and again feigned drinking.
She rolled her eyes, looked to the sky and muttered almost more to herself than the boy, “Does it look like I have water?” She looked at him again, and tried once more, gesturing to herself as before, “Kiannae.” She paused. “You?” she said in as questioning a voice as she could manage. This time the boy gestured to himself, being sure to mimic the action as clearly as he could, then to Kiannae, and then after craning his head forward again mocked drinking from his cupped hands.
Kiannae threw her hands up in frustration, and leaned back against the tree closing her eyes. “Hopeless,” she muttered. When she looked again, the boy was gone, and there were only the mists. She looked around, trying to figure out where he had gone, but the last embers of the fire gave little useful light. She considered looking for the boy, she worried for a moment for his intent, but decided reluctantly that she no longer cared…even if he did wish her harm. She leaned back against the tree and let herself fall asleep.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Kiannae woke to the chirping of birds, and it was obviously late in the morning. She looked around. There was no sign of the strange boy, and she wondered if she had simply hit her head harder falling from her horse than she thought. She kicked some dirt onto the cold coals of her fire absently and looked around to pick a direction to hike. Her stomach growled, and she was at once annoyed, and relieved by the absence of wild berries in the area.
She was half way through the idea of hunting again when she was snapped to attention by the distinctive twang of an arrow striking near her foot. The start set her off balance, and she found herself on her back, cursing in pain as muscles and joints trice abused by falling from a horse, hiking, and sleeping in unfamiliar positions decided to make their vehement hatred felt upon further misuse. The few seconds of distraction from pain were more than enough for Kiannae to find herself completely surrounded by three tall men.
Kiannae quickly realized one of them was markedly heftier than the others. As she focused on his face, which seemed obscured in shadow, she realized his features were not really those of a man. Dark fur covered all of him that was visible, and possibly the rest that was hidden by clothes. His eyes were amber, and gleamed brightly, his nose more of a snout, though shallow like a cat’s. All of this made sense to her on some level, it tracked with things she knew, but to see it for the first time was as bewildering, as unnerving.
The cat man was a hard sight to look away from, but in truth he was not the most threatening. A redheaded archer held a bow taunt and fixed on her, and she had little doubt that the first shot was not a miss, and that his next would find a far more painful mark. She could see an ear peeking from his long locks, and the tuft of matching red at its long point.
The third leaned down to examine her more closely, his two brown braids hanging close to her arm, and his ears tufted in black.
“Unna, ve er vyn?” he spoke in a clearly demanding tone, but it was gibberish to her ears. It was familiar though, in form, and rhythm. The faint memory of a man she had once called ‘pa’ was there, but no meaning she could discern. The vague recollection of being corrected, ‘ha,’ and further corrected ‘pa,’ and squabbling between father and grandfather tried to intrude. She could almost remember the words, ‘of no use’ winning the argument on her grandfather’s side. The irony of it at that moment almost made her laugh, but it seemed ill advised.
“Sylvan?” she asked, in way of some kind of response.
The cat faced man snorted in a way that seemed derisive. “Veve, osjern, os sta testan.”
“Un, os osjern, unken.”
“Untepal.” It was hard to read the catlike features, but they seemed even more displeased as he uttered the word. He was a he, Kiannae was at least mostly sure. He was tall as Laurel, and all at once more stout than Horence.
The one kneeled over her shot a scolding look at the large one, and looked back at her, and though obviously frowning nodded tersely. He offered her a hand to be polite, but there was some distaste in his eyes as she accepted his help. Her stomach growled again, and the archer lowered his bow slightly. There was an exchange of glances, and terse words between the three Sylvans – though they did not like that name. She knew her father had said the right name at least once, and tried to find the memory as they seemed to descend into bickering.
“Ve je fer so? Son os ch, osjern?”
“Sa os echk unna. Se?”
The last word it seemed would go to the archer, with only another derisive snort from the large cat-man, and scolding glare and a nod from the third. The cat tossed a small bundle to the brown haired Sylvan, who Kiannae decided must be the leader. He unwrapped a corner and pulled out a long thin sheet of what seemed to be dried meat. He offered it to Kiannae, obviously trying, and only partially succeeding to seem gracious. Kiannae took the jerky, curtsied, and nodded.
“Thank you,” she added for good measure, though she was certain the words were lost on the Sylvans – though they did not seem to like the word. Then she remembered, one of them had said it, but it wasn’t ‘Untepal’ though, she was certain it was Tepal. “Thank you, Tepal,” she tried again.
This got a reaction, a not unpleased, but bewildered exchange of glances, and then a nod from the leader. That was what they called themselves, and Kiannae found herself wondering what the addition of Un made it. Was it simply not? She had doubts. ‘Osjern,’ had been used several times in the initial exchange. It had been a curse on her father’s lips more than once, and it felt to her – more than sounded – like other, but something told her it was outsider.
Pulling herself from the thought, she turned to the others, and repeated the gesture, and thanks, feeling that it might be important to build good will. The cat-man seemed to barely acknowledge her, and turned to walk away. The red headed archer nodded, and plucked his arrow from the ground. The leader behind her took her arm, and gestured the way the large one was walking. “Elye.”
Kiannae simply accepted that prisoner or guest, it was best she followed the implied command promptly. As she walked Kiannae nibbled at the jerky tentatively. It was salty, meaty, decidedly smoky in fragrance let alone taste, and otherwise unidentifiable. All that considered, under the circumstances it was heavenly delicious, even if she could tell it was a bit gamey.
She continued her ponderance on the meaning of Untepal as they walked. It had sounded almost derisive, spiteful. Yet if it was not outsider, or other, or simply not Tepal. She thought through other ‘Uns’ in the exchange. Unna, had been the first word said to her. ‘Na,’ her father had once tried to teach her to say, and gestured to her mother. Much as her mother had called her Kia, her father had tended to say ‘Annae,’ but that wasn’t right. Annae was always what her mother corrected, ‘Aunna,’ had been what her father called her. Unna he had said of Katrisha.
Thinking of her sister almost upset the whole train of thought, sent a tear running down her cheek, but she refused. She was so close, she felt it. It was a willful distraction, but she clung to the distraction. If Na was mother, or perhaps woman, and un was not an oppositional prefix, then perhaps it was simply lesser. Unna, perhaps simply meant daughter, or perhaps little woman, girl? Untepal could then – since she had many times been told how Sylvan’s felt about outsiders – be almost insulting word. What was worse than an outsider? Something in between, something less than? It would explain the distaste it was said with, and reproving glare for its use. They had seemed to accept Tepal at least.
The logic all seemed sound, and all at once not promising. The situation she had put herself in easily overwhelmed sorrow, and pushed back further tears. Yet all at once she had gotten past the first hurdle. Perhaps there was hope, or perhaps she was walking into an even worse situation.
The four walked through the forest wordlessly for more than a mile, until suddenly the large one stopped, crouched, and sniffed the air. The others assumed similar postures, and Kiannae thought it best to do the same. Seconds past in stillness, and then she heard the crack of a twig, which drew her eye to a huge stag emerging from behind a tree a hundred paces ahead. There was a flicker of movement from the corner of her eye, and even before she could turn her head the arrow flew past with a hiss, and struck the distant stag in its side.
The cry of pain was rattling as the beast staggered, and a second arrow struck as is turned. Surprisingly it didn’t flee, but charged. A third shot, this time from a bow pulled by the leader struck, but still the stag bore down on their position. The cat-man grabbed hold of the beast’s antlers, and nearly stopped it clean in its tracks, his large paw like feet digging into the needles, and dirt. The stag thrashed his head, and broke free toppling the large Sylvan, and charged for the second closest, the leader. Kiannae rolled out of the way on some instinct, and saw the leader had leapt clear at the last second, and almost unbelievably far. If the leap itself was amazing, the draw of a short curved sword in the act, and a slice across the stag’s throat was utterly breathtaking, as a thin arc of blood trailed behind the swift action.
The beast’s cry of pain was garbled, and it obviously was choking, but not yet down. It turned to Kiannae who was now the closest target. Even before it could charge she struck hastily with lightning. This stunned the stag, if not killed it. It was hard to say if her blast or suffocation brought it down. The leader looked at Kiannae with a displeased sneer, and convinced she was not about to use her magic on him, finished the beast off with a strong blow that took the head clean off.
The cat-man brushed the dirt off from where he had fallen, and gave Kiannae a look that was now more guarded than distasteful. Only the archer seemed more cordial, and offered her a hand. He nodded approvingly with a glance towards the now dead stag, and she took the offer.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
It had taken most of the afternoon to bleed and cut the stag into pieces that even the largest of the company could manage, and move them back to the men’s camp. The skin had been expertly removed, always keeping the meat from touching the ground, which was so expertly done it defied the unsettling aspects and kept Kiannae’s eyes on the process. The antlers, ribs, even the organs were separated, and stored in clean furs like the meat, but the guts were left for what might take them, far from camp. Lastly the skull was placed between the roots of a tree, and briefly honored by each of the men. Kiannae did her best to mimic the act, it seemed a natural form of respect. Something that had perhaps always been missing. Meat had always just been, even if she understood intellectually where it came from.
Kiannae had mostly been left to be watched by the archer through the process. None of the three men had tried to speak to her again, and their words to each other still meant little, even if there was an ever stronger sense of familiarity. There had perhaps been some sense of approval when she moved to bow as they had to the head of the stag. Though the cat-man was as always hard to read. She wasn’t entirely sure it was just his features, or some aspect of his character. Stoic was not quite the word. He seemed to show distaste readily enough if it suited him to do so. He had moments he showed clear joviality as well, though it always seemed biting or derisive to his fellows. Aloof, Kiannae settled on. He really did remind her of her cat Mar back home. This thought was dismissed almost immediately for all that was attached to it.
The leader by that point was struggling to start the fire using his a bow, and a stick. There were whiffs of smoke, and he seemed to know what he was doing, but the wood was simply too wet. The archer seemed to be scratching his chin thoughtfully, and then looked very pointedly at Kiannae, and gestured to the unlit fire pit.
Kiannae considered, nodded, and walked over to where the leader still worked. She knelt down opposite the man who gave her a very cross look. She gestured to herself, cocked her head to the side, made what she thought was her most ‘helpful’ face, and gestured to the unlit fire as though to ask, ‘May I?’ The leader sneered, then softened his expression slightly. He set his implements aside, and walked off in frustration. Kiannae shrugged, and with little effort lit the fire.
Most of the meat was wrapped in stained furs for storage and travel, but each hunter had taken a choice piece to cook over the fire on a sharpened stick. The archer however cut his piece in half, and offered it on a second stick for Kiannae to cook for herself, which she thanked him for, and smiled.
As the sun slowly set the trio of hunters became more chatty amongst themselves, and Kiannae tried in vain to catch any hint of the conversation. When the sun had finally sunk below the tree line the leader, and the cat-man pulled blankets over themselves, and unceremoniously went to sleep. This left Kiannae, and the archer who obviously had first watch. Though she was surely one of the things to be watched.
Time passed in silence, until at last Kiannae grew frustrated and moved closer to the archer who eyed her cautiously. “Kiannae,” she said gesturing to herself.
The archer gave her an odd look for some time, as though unsure what she was saying. She repeated, gestured to herself, and then to the archer.
He looked to his sleeping companions, and after some hesitation gestured to himself, “Iven.”
“Thank you,” she said. He perked a brow, but seemed to recognize the phrase by then.
Kiannae tried several more times as the night wore on to learn something from Iven, who seemed uninterested in learning either her words, or teaching his own. Kiannae had almost drifted off when she was startled by the archers sudden movement. She looked up to see him holding his bow taunt, and staring into the darkness beyond the fire intently. She looked in the direction of his gaze, but at first saw nothing, then a slight shadow of movement in the darkness.
Kiannae could not quite make out the form, but it seemed the right height to have been the boy from the night before. She worried that it was, and that the kindest seeming of Sylvans might kill him. Not that she had reason to trust or like the mysterious naked boy, it just seemed wrong. She looked back to Iven who obviously was scanning for any sign of what he had seen. Kiannae actually caught the glimpse of the boy first at the edge of the fire light, even as Iven spun to train his bow on him.
Kiannae turned, and held up both hands raised to Iven in a gesture to stop. He turned his eyes only slightly to her quizzically, but then his expression changed to something unsettled. Kiannae turned back to where the boy had been, but saw nothing, just mist in the fire light. She looked back to Iven who had lowered his bow, but seemed to be regarding her more cautiously than ever. He moved to the opposite side of the fire from her, and gave every visible indication he did not wish her to come closer.