Dust motes waltzed and twirled in the early spring heat. Bits of pollen teased and danced just out of their reach. The sun cast liquid shadows on the forest floor as small animals paused in their endeavors to watch as she walked by. They were no longer afraid of her. She had been a part of their lives too long for that. Still, they were curious. Sometimes, when she was not too preoccupied, there were treats for them in the cloth pouch she always wore. Or perhaps she’d pause for a pat, a kind word, or burr removed. But this afternoon none of those things would happen. She was searching again, focused, and they had come to know that on those days she would not notice them. Silently they crept back to the things they had to do.
The young woman paused near a small stream running silent and deep and pushed back the golden fronds of the water ferns that grew there. She bent, frowning, and carefully removed the cool mosses growing underneath. She held her breath and watched, waited. And there! Slowly, almost timidly, a small blue flower began to unfurl as a gentle beam of sunlight touched its home. Her laughter floated through the forest as she reached to snip the flower from the tiny plant. Only at this time in its life. Only at this time of year. She knew that this one small bud would save many lives in the coming year. So rare and so precious. So powerful. But only one would she take. One per year. It was her trade with the woodland gods and the only one she would make.
Straightening, she carefully placed the flower in her pouch. She pushed back her thick dark hair and looked around. She had come further than she’d planned today and it took a moment to get her bearings. The meadow where Dark grazed would be… over there, that way. Glancing at the sky she realized it was time to head home. At this time of year night still came too early to wait any longer. Her parents would worry, even now, if she tarried longer.
She strode quickly and now took the time to notice the many small animals that paused hopefully as she passed. As always her laughter was quick and ready. “Greedy. Tomorrow, I’ll make it up to you.”
After some time the stream she had left behind took a large turn on itself and once again she met up with it. Here just before the meadow it was wider, rocky and loud. She skipped lightly across the stones and almost burst into the meadow on the other side only to stop suddenly and drop to the ground. Dark. He had not greeted her. Was not even looking in her direction. He would have heard her come, he always did. Would be coming to meet her. But not today. Today he stood frozen on the other side of the meadow and was staring out into the forest beyond. His ears were pointed so far forward they almost touched. His nostrils flared as he drank and tasted the scents on the air, every muscle taunt with his concentration. She respected his senses enough to wait on his verdict. He would be a better judge of the danger of whatever was out there than she could be. She knew also he would fight to protect her. Her father had taught him well; she knew his hooves and teeth were a match for any woodland danger. And there had been no other dangers here for many years. She would wait hidden in the tall grass and let him decide what needed doing.
After several long moments he relaxed and tossed his great head. His mane fell forward over his eyes and he shook his head. Then pawing the ground, he nickered back to her. She smiled and rose, began walking over to him. The danger was passed. She trusted his judgment. He had never failed her before. She looked down as she walked and dusted off her skirts. The stallion swung his wide head back towards the forest and nickered again. He looked back to her once more and then, as if deciding something, he walked off into the forest.
Aeovel continued walking toward him, following where he led; her forehead creased now, eyes narrowed. Wondering. A quick wind tossed her hair back, lifted it suddenly, only to spill it down her back. It pushed her skirts back against her legs making it harder to walk in the thigh high grass that filled the air with its fragrance. But the wind also brought its own fragrance. No, not a fragrance, an odor. A acid smell; almost metallic. A smell that caught in the back of your throat and made it hard to swallow. One that is never forgotten once tried.
Aeovel reached down, grabbed her skirts and lifting them broke into a run, fighting against the grass, the wind and her rising fear. “Dark! No! No! Gods, please wait. Please.” She sobbed from deep inside and decided to save the rest of her breath for running.
Forgetting her own safety she burst into the trees and ran on in the direction her horse had taken. In only a short terrible moment she could see him standing just ahead of her. She slowed and tried to take in what was happening. Dark stood quietly, his neck extended and gently, so gently, was sniffing something on the ground in front of him. This made no sense! She could smell orcs everywhere. The air was thick with the foulness of them; the ground all around torn and ravaged, made raw by their passing. Their passing. That was it of course. They were gone now. She whispered, “Please the Gods let that be so.” She came up quietly behind Dark and reaching out to trail her hand along his coat she walked beside him and stood.
To learn what he had found.
The rain continued through the night, soaking the ground and the newly planted fields, causing the seeds to swell and burst. To quicken the life that waited there. To begin the true magic that flowed through seasons and renewed them all. It was a gentle rain. Kind, warm and welcome. It brought life to the earth and filled the streams and ponds for the coming hot season. It cleansed also. And put out the fires and washed the smell of blood and fear from the vanquished earth. It washed away the smell of hot entrails, poured out as if in offering to the springtime sun. It made the soil wet and flowing so that by morning the footprints and gouges were filled in and gone. It left behind a sparkling blue sky, a forest made fresh and cleansed and the terrible lonely smell of wet ashes.
Aeovel stood slowly, aching, her clothes damp and clinging. Her hair was now a heavy sodden mass. Without a backward glance at the thing lying in the corner she walked slowing and carefully out of the ruined shed and into the morning sun. Continued walking out into the centre of what had been her parent’s farmyard. From here looking out towards the forest it was all the same. The field in front newly planted and full of rich browns. The air full of bees working through the fruit trees over there. Dark grazing quietly with one cow over there. Ah yes, there was a difference. One cow. Only one. No calves. And the quiet. The dammed horrible raging quiet of it. Mornings here were always noisy. Horses neighing and stamping impatiently. Cows crying to be milked, chickens hurrying around busy with their own pursuits. The dogs always trying for one quick game before the morning round of work began in earnest. And always, always the sound of her mother singing. Her clear and wonderful voice always filled the air and joined the birds in making this place seem enchanted in the morning. A place out of time. A place always of peace.
All of that was gone now. In one staggering afternoon a lifetime had been wiped out. Two lifetimes.
Aeovel stood still; head bowed, and wished she could cry. Wished she could find some way to lessen the great crushing weight that seemed to have lodged itself so deep inside as to never find its way out again. She wanted to deny all of this. Or to run and rant and rage against whatever fates let such things happen. That let such beasts live in a world so full of beauty and light.
She took a deep slow breath and lifted her head. Such thoughts did no one any good. Not the dead, nor the living. Her father would not approve of such things on this morning of all mornings. He would tell her she had things to do. There was much to take care of, choices that must be made. Work to be done on a scale she had never faced before. And that thing Dark had found, she must decide what to do about that. Perhaps that first of all. She had plenty of time for pain later. There would be nights aplenty to mourn and days without number to hurt for her loss.
She lifted her head and turned to look back at her home. The house was finished. She could see no way to repair what was left. Only parts of the stone walls were standing. The roof was gone in the blaze she had come home to yesterday. The barn too was finished, beyond her ability to fix. Those walls had been of wood and very little remained. The shed she spent the night in was probably her best chance of shelter in the coming weeks. Beyond that she could not go. The fields were mostly fine. Only where the orcs had walked through was there damage. Plenty was left to feed her and the few remaining animals. One horse, one cow, and there were several chickens left scratching in the fields. The rest were in heaps of gore littering the yard and orchard. Just parts of the fractured and shattered bits of her life they had left behind. They had torn through the house before torching it. In their lust to destroy they had actually done her a favour. There were a few unbroken dishes, a pot, a few pieces of clothing she could repair, all scattered and mixed with what was left of the bodies. It would be a dark and terrible job to sort through that horror but one she knew she would have to face. She hardly had a choice. She must face this day like all others and find a way to live.
I guess that was the morning my history began. For you see, Aeovel was my mother.
She told me once about that morning. I can hear her voice now. We had finished our dinner and were sitting out under the stars. The night was hot and still. My father and brothers had just returned from Triboar with news of a another orc raid. After that one slashing raid that changed my mother’s life the orcs had retreated north again and had not returned for many years. Once again that autumn they were back. In smaller groups but braver somehow. Or more desperate.
So on that bright and peaceful night she told us all her story. One I had never known before. She told us how she had survived that summer. How she had burnt the bodies of the animals and buried what was left of her parents. She still shuddered as she spoke, but she had gone on to tell us of rebuilding a life and how she had nursed the thing her horse had found in the forest that day. For she did nurse him. She said she could not leave a creature of such unearthly beauty and light to die from filthy orc wounds. How it would treat her when it was well she knew not and could not care. It must survive!
How he survived at all was a great testimony to her healing and love. And the power of her little green leaves. It had been weeks before he regained true consciousness. And weeks more before he could do anything on his own. He stayed with her all that summer and when the winter came and his strength had returned he decided he could not leave her.
He was an elf. A Wood Elf. Sylvan. Not one to mingle with humans or even his own race overmuch. But her kindness, her somber beauty and her great need of him kept him with her the many years until her death. He stayed with her as husband and they came to raise seven children.
I am the last of their brood. He is my father. Brendel of High Forest. Tall, slim, with hair long and red. When the sun shines on it, it seems that gold dances and sings all through it. His eyes are green and as deep as a forest pool. And as knowing. He is a creature of grace and beauty and she loved him well. As he came to love her.
And so, my childhood was filled with things of the forests and fields. My mother knew much of planting and Brendel learned these from her. He in turn taught her much more of the forest, plants and animals she had always loved. Her healing powers came to be great and good. Together they taught my brothers and I all of these, as our interest led us. I followed my lessons with a joy fierce and strong. Brendel taught me to speak with the small mammals of the woodlands and fields surrounding our home. I have come to know the signs in weather and wood that are part of the language of our world. I know of plants to heal and to kill. I know of tracks and sounds and smells. I know of rocks and climbing. And I can ride. This perhaps was their most joyful gift to me. I now ride a descendant of Aeovel’s Dark. I call him Darksin. Not original, but it honours him.
Five years ago Aeovel died. As do all of the human race all too soon. She died old and frail and wise; and surrounded by the family that loved her. This spring Brendel brought me to the same stream Aeovel had found on the day she found him. He showed me the place she had gathered the little blue flower that had become his salvation. This year we had to brush remnants of snow away but when the sun had touched the right spot for the right time it grew and blossomed before my eyes. We take from only one plant per year. That was Aeovel’s trade and now it is our’s. Brendel took one small flower and brought me and it to my mother’s grave; this year we left one petal there for her. Not original, but it honours her.
Then, after touching my face and looking long into my eyes, my father turned and walked into Greenwood that afternoon. I have not seen him since.
This year, I am leaving my home and six brothers to follow a friend and become a part of men’s world. I hope only a small part. And when I can I shall return to fly across the plains of Dessarin astride Darksin, and walk the dark forests I love so true. So, this life will suit me well enough.
I travel with two companions; Tau Gilmore whose secrets do not frighten me, and Erik Jheleza whose secret I must uncover. Tau is quicksilver and shadow; Erik is fortitude and courage. They have accepted me and walk with me as equals.
The year has brought uneasiness and ill storms to our land and we go forth to discover why. Something done for the puzzle and for the joy of doing. In this is it much as life should be, and so, it suits me well enough.