In the four corners of the world — Tundra, Forest, Desert and Jungle — the spirits passed down the gift of intelligence to the animals. Aeron is not suited to life in Tundar: no fur, no blubber, and rather prone to frostbite. After discovering his heritage lies with the Goedwig forest-dwellers, Aeron travels from his home in search of the people who look like him.
"It's a big-ass tree," came a voice.
Aeron jumped a little. The voice was close but he couldn't see who it came from. He had been alone, or so he thought, standing on the precipice above the city, a narrow stretch of earth surrounding the colossal trunk of the Coedmhór. After finally escaping the sea of balding heads marching round and round the city streets below, Aeron had found the steps of twisted roots that led up to their source — the cathedral-like sapling that stood at the heart of the Goedwigs. Beneath it lay the home of Gwad, the Spirit of the Forest.
Or so he was told, anyway. He couldn’t get inside the burrow because a visit to the Spirit cost more than he could barter for his furs. He argued with the Guardian for a while, for what kind of Spirit was concerned with gold? The Spirit of the Tundra never required payment; one simply had to swim beneath the ice sheets to reach his dwelling place. In Aeron’s case this was a tad more difficult due to the tendency for his hairless skin to go blue in Tundric waters, and so his visit to Naluktuk involved rappelling a glacier and traversing its treacherous caverns instead.
But that wasn't a big deal or anything. It was a display of diligence, which was what Naluktuk was all about. So the questioned remained: what kind of Spirit would prefer to judge the virtue of his people merely by the amount of gold they were willing to hand over?
It shouldn't have been so surprising that things worked differently in the Goedwigs, but Aeron had been frostbitten and fallen out of trees and even force-fed a pre-hibernation feast on his journey to his supposed birthplace, so he was just a bit fed up with being screwed over at this stage.
Nevertheless, he trudged back and took a stroll around the perimeter of the Coedmhór to gather his bearings in the new city. Halfway around he stopped and leaned against the small fence that stood a few feet from the tree, sighing as he looked down over the winding streets that converged right where he stood. The Goedwiggens never looked up, never lost step, and Aeron felt like the only thing standing still in the entire forest.
Except, of course, the big-ass tree.
He had turned to examine the Coedmhór more closely, and that’s when the voice chimed in.
Presently, there was a small chuckle from the same place as before, and Aeron caught a glimpse of the red mouth that gave away the voice’s camouflage. Above it, his gaze fell upon a pair of large black eyes that shone through the dull shadows of the foliage, and as he stared he managed to pick out the silhouette of a woman with skin so streaked and brown that she blended right into the bark. She leaned casually against the trunk with her arms folded, observing him with interest.
He glanced around again, picking out a Goedwiggen from the crowd to remind himself of their hooded eyes; their dull, muddy skin; their short statures and hunched frames. He looked back at the woman, almost losing her again to her disguise. He had seen something like this before: the Tundravisk folk had brilliant white hair to hide themselves in their snowy habitat. But despite having camouflage perfect for the forest, her distinctive markings were very unlike any Goedwiggens he had seen since his arrival in this strange land. She was tall and slender, with skin oddly stretched over an angular face.
In fact, she looked even less like the Goedwiggens than he did. And that was saying something.
Unsure of why he had been spoken to, Aeron failed to form a reply. He had never been all that smooth with the ladies.
“It’s amazing, really,” continued the girl, running her hand along the trunk. “There aren’t many trees where I come from. And nothing at all compared to this guy.” She knocked on the wood, laughing. “You could stand a hundred people inside this thing if you hollowed it out, and yet thousands of Wiggens pass it every minute, never looking up from the ends of their snouts.” She smiled sadly, her hand dropping to her side with a jangle of beaded bracelets.
Aeron cleared his throat a little, nervously fingering the barrier that she was so blatantly ignoring. “Um, are you allowed to be that close to it?”
The woman laughed loudly. “Allowed? I just told you nobody’s watching. I mean, it’s just not all that impressive, when you’re from here. It just looks like every other tree.” She slinked towards him, ducking down and passing underneath the barrier with jolted movements that were almost too quick for his eyes to keep up with. Once beside him, she reclined lazily against the fence, and turned to shoot him a wide smile. “So what about you, stranger? Do they have trees like this where you’re from?”
Aeron looked down, feeling his heart hitting his stomach as it had been threatening to do since he had first reached the outskirts of town. After months of travelling, he had finally arrived in the land of trees that the Spirit Naluktuk had told him about, expecting to find black-haired, blue-eyed faces that resembled himself. No blubbery, white-haired Tundravisks towering over him, nor their brown-haired brothers of Borea. So when the frozen ground beneath his feet began to soften into loose earth and the pine needles littering the forest floor transformed into all shapes of colourful autumn leaves, he had felt the sensation swelling in his heart and knew for absolute certain:
He was coming home.
Until he saw his first Goedwiggen, that is. It had these tiny black eyes pinned above a protruding nose, a sparse head of brown hair and stood a foot shorter than him. Aeron had stared at the creature; it simply couldn’t be right. What sort of disgusting mutant could this be? Was this what he had been in the eyes of the Tundravisks for fifteen years? To answer that for him: no, it wasn't. Tundravisks really aren't that judgemental. Nonetheless, if Aeron was a Goedwiggen by blood, surely the Goedwiggens must look like him? Wasn't this the reason he had left Tundar, travelled all this way: to finally find a place where everyone looked like him?
But as he travelled deeper and deeper into the Goedwigs it became harder and harder to ignore. Sure, he tried, despite the obvious giveaways of his head sticking up out of the crowds marching down the dug-out trenches they called streets; and the way the doorknobs and doorbells and mining cart handles were all shaped for huge, clawed hands; and the fact that he kept getting lost in traffic. And at least in Tundar, the people were accustomed to his unusual looks by now. But here the people stared and whispered and, to top it all off, this woman who was as much a freak as he was had flagrantly mistaken him for a foreigner.
But, of course, it wasn’t a mistake. It was no use denying it any longer. He couldn’t possibly be a Goedwiggen: these people looked nothing like him.
He looked down at his hands, hoping to hide his face from the girl's judging eyes. “I was told I was from from here, actually, but now I'm not so sure. My home is …” He paused, swallowing a hard lump in his throat. “Well, I've lived in Tundar since I was a pup.”
“That explains the furs,” she laughed, plucking at his hood with pointed nails. Aeron flinched back, and then blushed as she giggled and peered under, trying to get a better look at his face. “Wow, you’re some ugly lookin’ mongrel, ain’t ya?”
“That’s not very nice,” he said quickly. “I could say the same about you.”
“You could, but I know you’re way too nice. And I’m not the one claiming to be a Wiggen.”
Aeron scoffed, but rather to avoid the topic of conversation than out of real annoyance. “And where are you claiming to be from, eh?”
“Oh, me?” she asked dreamily. “I hail from a little tribe in the South, where the Sun is hot and the girls are …” She paused, narrowing her eyes at him. “Cold-blooded.”
She paused for effect before shrieking with laughter, and Aeron stared at her uncertainly. A lazy life in Tundar can leave the brain cells slightly sluggish, so Aeron was not always the quickest to get the joke.
“It’s tragic, really,” continued to girl, completely oblivious to his awkwardness. That, or she simply did not care. “I’ve always wanted to see Tundar, but I’m afraid I couldn’t survive there at all. It’s bad enough here, I have to wrap up so much just to keep my blood from freezing. But I did always want to see your hills of snow.”
“How is it that you know so much of Tundar?” asked Aeron. “I never even knew there were other provinces until I left.”
She picked at her nails distractedly. “Well, that’s 'cause there's no Wiggens in Tundar to tell you of their home, ain’t it?”
Aeron’s eyebrows knit up. “You mean to say there are Tundravisks living here?”
"Oh, certainly!" she replied. "They’re all friends of mine — living on the outskirts of town. The Goedwigs are very multicultural, you'll be glad to hear. We’ve got an old man from Tundar, a couple kids from Borea. And me. Just me; my people aren’t widely known for their wanderlust, you see. But there’s a couple of outliers from a Savannite pride as well. And now you, I suppose.” She gave a smile that seemed too wide for her face, as spines that littered the corners of her face pricked up and stood back menacingly. “But I ain’t never seen anyone that looks like you before.”
Aeron wanted to smile back, but only found himself frowning further.
“Come to think of it, why don’t you come along to meet them tonight?” she asked eagerly. “Oh, they’re just the best of fun — and there’ll be drinking and dancing and all sorts of people to meet.” She smiled again, and cocked her head to one side. “Oh, you should definitely come. It’s the place to be if you’re interested in different cultures. Or from one, even.”
He considered this offer for a moment, looking down at his hands. He didn't like admitting it, but being thrown in the deep end with this whole journey thing and suddenly having all his hopes crushed before his very eyes made him really start to panic. What was he supposed to do now? Return to Tundar, and remain the only black speck in the flock of silver heads? Or stay in the Goedwigs, and try to find someone, anyone who could explain to him why the Spirit of Tundar believed this was his birthplace? And there was something else, something he would never admit: he was getting rather lonely. “That … that would be pretty great, actually.” He paused, observing this strange woman suspiciously, but all she did was smile sweetly back. “Thank you.”
“No problem, mongrel,” she replied, shooting him a wink. “Meet me around the back of the Dancing Dryad on Fifth. I get off at eight.”
“Fifth?” he asked.
She cocked her head at him. “It’s the fifth street clockwise from here. About five minutes down, big gaudy tavern on the left. You can’t miss it.”
“We’ll see about that,” he said.
She laughed loudly, and slapped his arm. “Great! I guess I’m late for work though, so better be off.” With that she slinked past him and skipped down the roots, disappearing into the masses.
He stared after her, a little taken aback. He wasn't used to making people laugh. Could it be that, in this place, he actually had a sense of humour?
Aeron spent a great deal of time debating with himself whether or not it was a good idea to follow a stranger to the outskirts of town the very night he had arrived in the Goedwigs. But he couldn't stop thinking about her, for no reason other than that she was the only person who had spoken to him in this strange place. The Goedwiggen faces he saw on the streets were permanently etched with annoyance, and if their behaviour in traffic gave anything away it didn't portray them as the most patient or gentle of folk.
But, at the end of the day, Aeron just couldn't stand the sight of them any longer. They only served to remind him of the fact that all his troubles had been in vain. He hadn't found his people, and he had lost all hope that he had any sort of family here. But maybe with the outsiders he could feel a little more at home.
And so he decided to meet her. By seven o'clock it had grown dark and the lamps had been lit, tinting the dusk with an orange glow as the bustle began to dwindle. He took the fifth turn from the city clearing, but by the time he saw the painted sign depicting a rather buxom woman who appeared to be part-tree, with the leafy words Dancing Dryad draped across her, it was still far earlier than the time they had arranged. Aeron jumped into the space between two nearby trees to stay off the road, and tried to figure out where he was supposed to go next. Some straggling Wiggens veered off the street and down the twisted steps into the underground tavern, the front of which was decorated in deep red wood and vines. There was a strange smell, and he peered past the trees to see a sort of alley, halfway down which some Wiggens were smoking outside another door on the same bank of earth.
He cautiously ventured down, and they all looked up as his footsteps crunched the leaves underfoot.
There was a pause.
“Looking for something?” one of them growled.
“I’m looking for …” Aeron almost hit himself when he realised he hadn’t even got the girl’s name. “... A lady. She told me to wait here, but I’m a bit early.”
“What kind of lady?”
“She’s, um — well, I don’t actually know her name but she’s not from around here.”
“Let me guess. She’s tall, dark and beautiful?”
“I suppose one could call her beautiful, yes.”
“Big black eyes and spines all over her face?”
“Yeah, that’s her!” he replied. “She works here … or that's what she told me, anyway.”
There was a silence for a moment, and then there was a roar of laughter from the group. Aeron blinked at them as they spluttered and snorted with mirth.
“I don’t understand …” he said slowly.
One of the men was slapping his knee, and looked up at Aeron as he wiped a tear from his eye. “Look, pup, your girl works here alright. But you’d better get in line if you want to have a chance of talking to her.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Blimey, he’s a thick one,” said another, shaking his head.
“Shut up, Padgey,” said the first. “It’s not the lady’s fault she attracts a lot of admirers. It gets her good business, you know how it is.”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Aeron. He really didn't. “And I’m not her admirer. She just said she’d meet me here.”
The Wiggen called Padgey was rolling his eyes. “Sure she did. She told you to wait here like the rest of her lovelorn followers. You see, this is where the dancers come out when the show is over. Summer’s a nymph if ever you saw one, but she knows it well. You’ve no business expectin’ to get her for the evening.”
Aeron nodded briefly, and turned to leave the alley. His heart was beating rather fast, his face flushed with embarrassment. The streets were empty now, the only souls outdoors were the various smokers and the doorman of the Dancing Dryad, who was stamping himself warm in the chilly evening and rubbing his shovel-like hands together. He called out to Aeron after a few minutes, informing him that the show was about to start. Since he could still hear the men snorting with laughter in the alley, he impulsively decided to pay the gold chips to enter.
“No hoods,” grunted the doorman. Aeron stood still for a moment, his stomach feeling like he had just swallowed a hundred worms. But he inhaled deeply and reached up to lower his furs, revealing his hideously unWiggen-like head. The doorman shot a startled look at his black mop of hair and flat face, but didn’t make any remark. Aeron simply gave a polite nod and followed the tunnel down a steep passage until it ended in a dimly lit room with very low ceilings.
Once inside, Aeron felt slightly more comfortable due to the dark, but much, much, much more uncomfortable in many other ways. The air was hot and perfumed and the light was tinted red. Thick curtains draped from ceiling to floor, creating booths along the walls where customers were sitting at round wooden tables, drinking and chatting loudly. There was an upbeat rhythm being played from the corner by three female Wiggens.
Just as he was observing the strange instruments, the lights dimmed further so that he could barely see at all except for a patch of light on a small stage at the end of the room. He scrambled in the dark for a seat, and just sat his butt down at the bar as a young Wiggen girl stepped out onto the stage to shouts and yelps from the audience. She was dressed in a decadent green and brown dress that shimmered and fell around her knees, and puffy white sleeves that protruded from the blouse underneath. Her face was pure white, with deep brown lips and flecks on her cheeks, her long brownish hair twisted around her head and secured in place with many gold pins and ornaments. She held a basket in her arm, and moved slowly across the stage which was built up from the same earth that the tavern itself was dug out of, and behind her was a screen picturing a landscape identical to the one right outside the door.
Suddenly, the music quietened, and a moment later it was only the strings playing as she girl began to tap the rhythm with her feet. She gave a kick, attracting gleeful yips from the crowd as the men began clapping in time with the steps, and stamping their feet as she jigged about, so loud they almost drowned out the music.
Aeron watched the girl go pink in the face underneath her paint as she danced, and stared around at the men. Suddenly, he felt rather more okay with the idea that he wasn't a Wiggen.
Things got a little more interesting when the woman was dramatically attacked by orange and bronze leaves, but then she fell to the floor and the lights dimmed. Aeron squinted around at the waitresses serving the drinks to see if he could recognise the girl from the Coedmhór, but she was nowhere to be seen. The next show started with a dark blue and silver palette, an icy setting. Aeron was reminded of Tundar and watched a little more keenly as snow fell around the next maiden, who danced and skid around the stage in a heavy hooded kimono of blue wool and white fur. To his dismay, neither the music nor the Wiggen girl’s dance really resembled the slow, bumbling natives of the North. And he had never seen much dancing from the Tundravisks, since they weren’t very athletic outside of water. The next season was Spring, with another Wiggen dressed up as another culture. This one he didn’t recognise. The girl flitted about a makeshift meadow, sending leaves and blossoms into the sky to fall around the audience. At one point, her light movements caused her skirts to blow up, revealing a slender knee, which drew gleeful shouts from some of the watching men.
Aeron found himself rolling his eyes and had just about had enough at this point. Since there was still no sign of the girl, he decided it was time he could finally leave and hope that the smokers had retreated indoors and wouldn’t bother him if he returned to the meeting place.
He worried briefly what kind of fool this girl could be taking him for, if he understood the jist of what the men had been trying to tell him. But for the present he only cared about putting this whole place behind him.
He was making his exit when the doorman, who had stepped inside for the end of the show, sent his elbow into Aeron’s ribs and whispered loudly, “How can you leave now, it’s the best part!” Aeron shrugged but the man insisted, and pointed at the stage as the lights dimmed red. “It’s Summer!”
“I don’t care about the damn seasons,” Aeron was saying, when he suddenly remembered the other man’s words:
Summer’s a nymph if ever you saw one.
Groaning slightly, Aeron turned back just as the girl walked out into the spotlight. Lit beneath a crimson sun, the earth of the stage had turned to sand and a single drum was resounding throughout the tavern. There were no flowers or snowflakes or baskets. There was only desert, and her.
She was wearing a short skirt and belly top with hanging strings of beads that rattled as she walked. Her face was painted pale white, her lips scarlet, but Aeron recognised her as the girl from the Coedmhór.
He sighed, resigning to watch one final dance.
The pace of the drum increased, and Summer stalked around the stage, eyeing up the audience with her pointed chin held high and shooting winks at various familiar faces. Then she stood in the centre, shaking out her arms, stopping and starting, until eventually shooting the drummer an annoyed look.
The drums stopped. Heckles were thrown in by the crowd. Summer smiled widely out at them, shrugging lazily.
Aeron folded his arms and sat back down at the bar, wondering what all of this was about. Eventually the drumming started again, faster than ever, and a hush fell over the entire room as Summer’s feet began to stamp and her arms began to spin. Before, the Wiggen girls had skipped lightly on their toes, but this was not how Summer danced. She used her whole feet, stomping them into the ground and creating tremors in the sand, as the beads she wore shook and rattled, making their own music with the rhythm of her body. Her hips moved fluidly and her arms twisted, then suddenly the tempo increased dramatically as staccato bursts of movement shook her chest and feet and the rushing of beads grew louder than the drum. The audience was riled up, some on their feet, but not one making a single sound.
Aeron looked on, not quite knowing what to think. Summer spun fast, sending sand flying at the front row, and fell to her knees. Then she was on her stomach, arching her back and twisting her body in ways that Aeron didn't think were physically possible. Her movements were foreign to him, angular but fluid, powerful stances that quickly changed and evolved. She kept low and built up potential with twists and turns, then suddenly flipped and landed on just her hands. She curled up and dropped the the floor, freezing, before suddenly pushing up from the ground and landing back on her feet. Beads popped out bursts of sound from her chest, as she twisted her hips, pumped the air with her fists and leapt high in the air, her body spinning horizontally before she landed back on her other foot, her body arced, one hand on the floor. She pulled herself back up straight, the strength welling inside of her, but her face remaining controlled. Throwing herself back on the floor, she spun with only her back touching the floor, her feet twisting and circling above her in midair. The drum beat boomed for the finale as she turned her body upside down on her head and spun, splaying her feet, and twisting back round to a kneeling position, throwing her hands out with a huge grin.
The cheering was deafening, and Aeron found himself on his feet with everyone else. She gave big bows and teased the audience, her chest visibly heaving with pants, but a second later she had slinked off the stage and disappeared as half of the crowd converged around her. The old Goedwig music started up again, and Aeron rushed forward as the other half of the customers teemed to the bar for their next round. He pushed past them to follow her to the stagedoor, where he told the bouncer that Summer was waiting for him.
“Sure she is, kid,” he chuckled. “And Spring is my little mistress. Why don’t you wait around back with the other weirdos?”
Aeron began to argue, while vaguely wondering why any of this was worth the trouble, when a young girl tapped him on the shoulder. “Summer has invited you to her chambers. Please follow me.”
The bouncer gaped at him as he was guided into the backstage area. Aeron stuck his tongue out at him.
The young girl brought him through a narrow tunnel, to a door decorated with red and gold embellishments.
“Thanks,” said Aeron, looking down at her with a smile. The girl stared at her feet, and gave a short burst of giggles before bowing deeply and leaving him.
Aeron blinked in confusion, and stared at the name Summer engraved in the wooden door in curly gold letters. He stood a moment, suddenly nervous, and put his hood back up. Then, he knocked.
“Enter,” she called out sharply, and he did.
The room was filled with gold ornaments and garnished dresses, long curtains and a big bed with many cushions and throws. It was better lit than the rest of the tavern, which was a relief because Eren’s eyes were not adapted for the underground and had already started to hurt. Summer was sitting in front of a vanity table overflowing with trinket boxes of powders and creams, staring into a large mirror as she wiped the sand and paint from her face with a wet cloth.
She lowered the cloth for a moment, eyeing him shrewdly through the mirror. “Didn’t I say I’d meet you out back, mongrel?” she asked, as a lot of giggling burst out from the corridor outside. She rolled her eyes. “The other girls are blushing at me bringing a boy into my room.”
Aeron looked around nervously. “Oh … I’m sorry for causing you embarrassment, Summer.”
“Ag man, Summer is my stage name. You can call me Ife.”
“I’m Aeron,” he said, feeling extremely uncomfortable.
“Well, Aeron, I never said that I was embarrassed, did I?” she replied, grinning at him. She turned back to the mirror and began removing the pins from her hair, letting the strange thick locks fall over her shoulders. “I didn’t expect you to come to the show. But it’s not bad, eh?”
Aeron thought for a moment, because he was a frightfully honest sort of person but never liked to cause offence. “You were very impressive,” he said eventually. "But I didn't care for the others much."
She laughed loudly. “Me neither! And don’t get me started on that idiot with the drum.” She lounged back in her chair, closing her eyes and rubbing her temples. “I teach and I teach and I teach them how to make the drum talk, and yet they still start me out like I'm about to do a diddly-eye jig.” She sat up straight and twisted around to smile at him. “As you can see, the Wiggens are very serious about accommodating other cultures in their arts.” He stared at her, and she laughed gruffly. “Well, ain't you a bundle of laughs?”
Aeron blushed, and thought it best to just nod along.
She covered her hand with her mouth to mask a giggle, and stood up, letting her shawls drop to the floor.
“Do you like my outfit?”
Aeron blinked, uncertain as to why she was concerned with his opinion. “It suits its purpose. Is it traditional?”
“Nope,” she sighed. “They like to think that coming from a hot place, the women of my tribe walk around in skimpy things like this.” She plucked at the beaded scarves tied around her waist and chest. “But we actually cover ourselves from head to foot. The sun’s not good for the skin, you see, not even this scaley stuff I have. Here, touch me!” she ordered, approaching him and offering her arm. He continued to stare at her, but couldn’t seem to move. She held her arm aloft, meeting his eyes, and the longer they stood there, there wider her grin grew. She searched his face, finally letting her hand fall back to her side with a jangle of beads. At the sound, her face perked up, spines standing on end. “These beads are traditional, though! Unfortunately, I despise tradition. We’re in a bit of a hurry so I’ll just quickly get dressed. That okay?”
Aeron nodded, and she smiled sweetly, stepping behind a screen. Piece by piece her garments were thrown out onto the floor. Aeron had an impulse to pick them up and fold them. She poked her head out, eyeing him carefully. “You know, most men get a little nervous when I begin undressing in front of them.”
Aeron, perfectly oblivious, just gave a shrug. “Clothes are designed for warmth and protection. Your skin is not suited to this climate, so you need to wear extra layers. It’s no big deal. I had the same problem in Tundar.”
Ife raised her eyebrows. “Pragmatic, ain’t you?” Aeron agreed and she laughed a little, rolled her eyes, and resumed her dressing. Pragmatic is just a kinder word for slow, you see.
When she stepped out again she was wearing a thickly layered dress that came down to her bare feet, and was hurriedly tying a thick beaded necklace around her throat. She went back to the table and took a dark red pencil to her lips. Then she grabbed a shawl from the floor, jumped into a pair of sandals, grabbed Aeron’s hand and whisked him out the door. Not expecting this, Aeron stumbled to keep up with her.
They reached the back door, and Aeron could hear the men talking outside. Ife stopped and pulled him towards her. At such close proximity, Aeron noticed the pattern of pearly and scarlet scales on her face amidst the chestnut brown, and the long lashes that framed her eyes. They glistened with excitement as she whispered, “Let me do the talking. Stay close.”
She threw the door open and, immediately, there was uproar.
“Summer! Over here!”
“Smile, Summer! You’re beautiful!”
“Summer, Summer! Do you remember me?”
Ife bowed to the men politely and smiled with grace. “Good evening, boys. Did you enjoy the show?” She began shaking hands with them all, suddenly the picture of elegance and cordiality, much unlike the cheeky girl in her chambers who threw her things all over the floors.
One of the men recognised Aeron from earlier in the night. “Hey, you! She really was waiting for you, huh? Wow!”
“Summer, is that your boyfriend?”
Aeron was overwhelmed by the cramped crowd, but Ife was a master of it. She scoffed loudly at the question. “My dear man, you know I don’t take boyfriends. My career simply does not allow it.”
There were laughs and cheers from the crowd, and she hushed them delicately. “Sadly, I can't stick around to talk with my dear fans tonight. The drumbeat calls!”
This distressed the fans very much and the shouts became overbearing. Then, Ife’s thin hand tightened around Aeron’s, and the next second she was squeezing through the crowd, dragging him along with her. They were followed all the way to the street, which was suddenly a mass of Wiggens once more as the evening came to an end and the citizens began their commute home. For a moment, Aeron was worried that the nature of Wiggen traffic meant them getting stuck trudging beside the weirdos from the back of the tavern all the way to wherever they were going, but Ife’s method of weaving through the crowd meant they soon left the place and its people far behind. She somehow managed to slip in between the small spaces between people in the Wiggen masses, but Aeron did not have the same skill and found himself apologising more than once to an angry shout from a passerby he had almost knocked to the ground.
After a few turns, the girl dragged him down a wide tunnel into an underground tram station. As they queued for the ticket vendor, she made a great show of pulling out her pockets and pouting, sending a flutter of her eyelashes at him. “Seems I forgot to bring coin. Would you mind getting my ticket for me?”
Aeron obliged and gave her a handful of gold to deal with the tickets, but found himself wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into with all this. He certainly couldn’t survive on just selling his furs for much longer.
Maybe the Dancing Dryad are hiring, he found himself thinking. He snorted at the thought.
The tram was an electric cart that travelled miles underneath the Goedwigs, something that would have been really handy on Aeron's trip inwards but was pretty expensive and left him with barely a gold piece. They arrived at an almost empty station and jumped off the tram, coming up into the deep forest which was dark and deserted. After a hell of a first day within the city centre, he felt suddenly at ease in the open forest, away from the suffocating streets and traffic noise.
They travelled together in silence for a minute, Ife skipping along eagerly and Aeron shooting her awkward glances every so often. Suddenly, her face lit up and she ran out ahead, and a moment later he heard the drums.
He followed her into a clearing where the trees had been cut down and furs and skins hung up on all sides. A raging campfire was set in the middle, around which many figures were dancing, shaking and stamping, and to which Ife sprinted immediately. Aeron gasped as she seemed to run right into it, not slowing down, but at the last moment took a great leap and landed on the other side of the flames, tumbling into the earth and laughing hysterically. There was a flurry as the people recognised her, and many of the dancers ran to her and starting hugging her and pulling her to her feet. Aeron stood and watched as his heart rate tried to recover. He blinked, dazed by the heat of the fire and the buzz of excitement amongst the people. He recognised the dark brown Boreans, some white-haired Tundravisk children, and other blonde beings that he had never seen before. Those who weren't dancing were sitting around on logs and stumps, and after a moment of standing forlornly on the edge of camp, a nearby Tundravisk noticed Aeron and called out to him in a rumbling voice. “Another friend of Ife’s, eh? Sit, friend. Drink.”
“Oh, um, thank you,” Aeron said sheepishly, sitting down beside the large man on the log.
He watched Ife, still the centre of attention among the dancers who were huddled together in a hush of anticipation, as she took up a drum and began beating a rapid tempo with both hands as the others clapped and began stamping wildly. He didn’t especially feel like joining the frivolities, but was handed a bottle of an orangey liquid which he looked down upon with slight reservation. The look on his face made the old man laugh and slap his back hard. Aeron looked up quickly, taken aback to see the mirth at his distress.
“It won’t kill you,” said another man sitting across from them. Aeron’s eyes were drawn to the yellow-haired, slender body and the dark brown eyes which were watching him closely. Aeron recalled Ife speaking the name of another race that lived here, the Savannites, if he recalled, and supposed this was one of them. The man smiled, flashing large white teeth, before taking a swig of his own drink.
“Yis, get that in your gut and then go dance with the lady,” offered the Tundravisk.
The Savannite chuckled. “You should know better, Ilannaq, than asking a Tundravisk to dance.”
“A Tundravisk?” repeated Ilannaq hoarsely. “Who’re you calling a Tundravisk?
“That cub wearing the Tundravisk furs beside you.”
“Oh, no, no. He ain’t no Tundravisk. See that black hair!—” he reached over and grabbed a handful of Aeron’s hair, making him jerk back and spill his drink, “— Did you think I was grey from old age or something, man? Tundravisks have white hair all their lives! It’s camouflage for the snow, you see?”
“Yes, I merely knew he couldn’t be of my own tribe, and certainly not a Wiggen—”
“I was born here in the Goedwigs, actually,” Aeron explained quickly. “But I’ve lived most of my life in Tundar.” The old man’s face suddenly wrinkled up, more so than it already was, and Aeron took a long swig from the bottle. When he lowered it, he frowned at the tartness. “And I know what you’re thinking. I don’t look anything like a Wiggen.”
Ilannaq laughed gruffly, and Aeron looked up in surprise. “Nor do I, and nor does T’sela here. Look around, son — not one beast at this campfire looks like a Wiggen.”
Aeron stared in shock at the old Tundravisk, who was already turning to T’shela. “Now, if the cub doesn’t want to dance with Ife, wouldn’t you like to take his place?”
“I’d be delighted,” agreed T’shela, and nodded politely to them both before standing up and leaping over to the campfire, taking Ife by the wrist and spinning her around and around as she shrieked with laughter.
Suddenly, Aeron felt a hand tighten around his own arm and he saw the old man leaning closer to him, his bearded face clouded with concern. “My boy … I have lived here since this slum was first set up and I’ve seen them all — Tundravisks, Boreans, Savannites like T’shela there and even desert fold like Ife. This is a safe place for all sorts. But that’s not to say the rest of this city is so welcoming to people who look different.”
Aeron looked down at his bottle and back up at the old man, who was twisting his fingers in his beard, and casting nervous looks around the clearing. He lowered his head again, beckoning for Aeron to do the same. “You know already how us humans came to be, yis?”
Aeron wrinkled his brow, but nodded.
The man nodded, too. “The Spirits bestowed intelligence on righteous animals in the different corners of the earth. We were created in their images, imperfect versions of the Spirits themselves. Now the Spirit here, Gwad of the Forest, is not quite like his gentle brother Naluktuk in Tundar. It is his belief that it is blasphemous for other races to live in his forest, since the Wiggens are the virtuous beings of this terrain and thus it should belong to them and them alone.”
Aeron stammered in shock. "But — but that's just nonsense! These lands have all sorts of niches for all kinds of animals to take advantage of; why can't it be the same with people?”
“That may be the case," agreed the man, lowering his voice, "but it is best not to dissent. We outliers have managed to make a home here, and we are safe. You're welcome to join us, and it would be wise to do so. They're not so hospitable closer to the Coedmhór."
"But I came here to find my home," Aeron said. "I know I don't look like anyone here, but I thought that if I spoke to Gwad—"
"No!" choked Illanaq, gripping his arm again. "If you are really of Wiggen blood as you say you are, it is even more vitally important that you don't draw attention to yourself. Especially from the Spirit! If Gwad were to find out that such an unWiggenly being came from his subjects … my dear boy, I believe that he would have your head!”
Aeron recoiled in surprise. Just then, there was a communal cry of dismay from across the campfire.
“I have to! You guys know I have a curfew!” Ife was yelling, laughing as she chased a small Tundravisk child who had stolen her shawl. “I told you: one dance!”
Aeron looked back at the old man, ripping his arm away. He had to be crazy. Aeron hadn't come all this way to live in a slum with other foreigners. Illannaq shook his head at him, but Aeron got to his feet. "Thank you for the advice. But Naluktuk himself sent me here, and I have to find out why."
He turned quickly and walked over to the campfire, trying not to look back. But he had to admit, the old man's words had left him a little shaken. Not only had his hopes of finding his home here been crushed, but apparently he was in danger, too? He was deep in thought as he blindly watched Ife kissing the others goodbye. How was it that she looked as freakish as he did, and yet was accepted by what seemed like a hoard of people both here, and in the city? They fawned over her, chased her, and even the stares that caught her in the streets were filled with rapture rather than the same horrified faces that met Aeron wherever he went.
If Ilannaq was right, how come Ife managed to have a job and accommodation beyond the slum?
When she saw him, she beamed and embraced him like an old friend. “So you didn’t feel like dancing, eh?” Without waiting for a reply, she asked. “Oh, are you gonna walk me to the tram?”
Aeron wrinkled his brow. “Well, I was gonna get the tram back to the city, too.”
“Oh, sweetie, I only gotcha a one way ticket.”
He blenched. “Why on earth did you do that?”
She began walking, hooking her arm in his and dragging him with her. “Because I brought you here to stay. This is the best place for foreigners in the Goedwigs, after all."
Aeron stared at the ground as he walked, fuming. “Well, will you be back soon?”
She laughed. “Yah, next time I can rustle up the cash for the tram, I guess.”
Aeron paused. “You mean hustle some guy into paying it for you?”
“Oh, no hard feelings about that, eh? You know how it is.”
“No, I don’t know how it is," he replied sharply. "And so there kind of are hard feelings.”
She rolled her eyes, meeting his shrewdly. “A lousy train ticket is fair barter for friends and a bed to sleep in, don’t you think? You don’t get nothing for free around here. You’d better get used to that. And I did you a favour — you're gonna find out real quick that it’s damn near impossible to get a bed in this town without a balding head and pointed nose.”
Aeron stopped. “But you have a bed, don’t you?”
She laughed loudly. “Yeah, but I ain’t sharing it.”
“I didn’t mean —”
“I know what you meant,” she said. “We’re all mongrels here. But I just happen to be a beautiful mongrel, and that’s why I get a bed.”
Aeron opened his mouth to speak, but quickly closed it again and just looked down at his feet as the began walking again, more slowly now. He heard her sigh, and stole a cautious glance at her face.
She pursed her lips and met his eyes carefully. “These people will make sure you’re taken care of. They can even get you work fishing on the rivers, since you don’t really have those Wiggen claws for mining. And I presume you wanna work. I mean, why else would anyone come to the Goedwigs except to make gold?”
Aeron sighed. “I came to find someone who looked like me,” he said quietly.
Ife gave a huff, turning to look distractedly into the forest. “See, I just don’t get that. Back home everyone looked the same as me, and that’s one of the reasons I left.’
“Really?" Aeron asked. "Why?”
She turned to him, shrugging. “It was just dull, wasn’t it? Just because you were born somewhere, or because you look like the people there … It doesn't mean that's where you belong. Not always." She smiled at him, squeezing his arm a little. "I like to think that the more extraordinary people of this world have to find their niche somewhere more exotic. They can’t settle for being average.”
“It’s easy for you to say all that,” said Aeron, unhooking his arm from hers. “People would think you’re beautiful no matter where you went.”
“Yah, thanks and all,” she said, rolling her eyes. “But why do you think I love the Coedmhór, while every Wiggen in this town walks by it like it's any other tree? You really think I fit into the Wiggen perception of a beautiful woman? Hell no! But I’m proud of looking different. I don’t hide my face under a hood,” she teased, elbowing him sharply in the ribs. He laughed a little, and she stopped walking abruptly. She stared straight ahead for a moment, looking thoughtful, and then turned to him slowly with a growing smile. Aeron swallowed nervously as she reached up and lowered his furs, taking his face in both her scaled hands. “See, it’s not so bad,” she said quietly, widening her eyes so they were very large. Aeron saw his own face reflected in them, and averted his eyes hastily. “I’m sorry I called you ugly before. You’re not ugly at all, really. Just different. But why should that be such a bad thing? Different can be beautiful. Just look at me!"
She chucked a little, and Aeron looked back at her face for just a moment as her smile slipped away.
"But I’ve never seen anyone with blue eyes before,” she whispered. Aeron blinked, and then she dropped her hands. His heart had a moment to calm itself as she turned and yawned loudly, running a hand through her hair. “But you could always go ask the Spirit of the Forest for a nice set of beady eyes and a bald head if you don’t believe me.”
Aeron laughed quickly, and very nervously, then paused before placing his palms together and giving a small bow. He glanced up, and saw her smile slightly as she observed him.
She cocked her head in the direction of a nearby tunnel. "This is my stop, I guess. You're okay to stay here?"
Aeron sighed and scratched his head. "I suppose. At least I can work up enough gold to pay Gwad a visit."
"You think he might know something about your parents?" she asked.
"Well, the Spirit of Tundar was the one who told me this was where I would find the answers," he explained. "But now that I think of it, it's quite likely he had no idea what he was talking about. Probably doesn't even know what a Wiggen looks like, or he could've warned me." Ife chuckled, and he smiled slightly. Then he shrugged. "But it's the only thing I can think of."
She nodded, and fluffed out her hair again. "Stop by the Dancing Dryad next time you're in town, eh?" she said, winking. "See ya around, mongrel."
And with that she skipped off into the dark mouth of the tunnel, leaving Aeron standing in a frozen wave.
He dropped his hand as her footsteps disappeared, exhaling heavily. He finally had a chance to catch his breath.
Aeron liked being alone. He could finally linger a moment in the calmness of the sounds and solitude of this part of the forest. It was as if he was back where he started; before seeing the Wiggens, before discovering the cramped streets and its antisocial commuters, and before discovering that they didn't even want him here.
But, somehow, he had made a friend. And she seemed to think he could belong.
He had a lot to think about, but he was awfully tired all of a sudden.
Aeron looked down, and saw something glinting in the moonlight. As he took a few steps closer, he saw a gold pin laying in the leaves. He knelt and picked it up, turning it over to see a crisp jewel inlaid in the head of it. He looked up and opened his mouth to call Ife back, but as he felt the slight tremor of the ground beneath him, he knew the girl was gone.
He swallowed, his heart beating fast.
He mind flew to the Coedmhór, and the greedy Spirit that slumbered beneath it. He remembered the warnings of the old Tundravisk and the advice of the Spirit of the Tundra. He imagined going back to the campfire, from which he could now hear the familiar sound of Tundravisks just beginning a chorus. Aeron had no intention of sitting around a campfire listening to the haunting, guttural gasps and burps that the Northerners called singing. He had spent fifteen years listening to it, and that hadn’t travelled all this way to hear it again. But had the lively, diddley-eye music of the Dancing Dryad really appealed to him any more than that? He had expected himself to just blend into the Goedwigs as soon as he arrived: finally looking like everyone else, finally having the right skin to protect against the weather, and finally finding his niche.
But he didn’t look like the Wiggens. He had no pointed snout, no giant clawed hands, and on the top of all that, he had been pushed to the outskirts with the foreigners. But none of them looked like him either. And maybe this was okay, maybe he could be proud of being different. But there was still the question: why?
For Ife knew where she came from, at least. Aeron still had no idea. But he felt sure that the answers were dwelling beneath this city.
His fist clenched around the gold pin. She had told him clearly, crystal clearly, in fact: you don’t get nothing for free around here. In that case what he was about to do was stealing. But then why was he so sure that she had dropped it on purpose?
Finally, he wondered what his parents would say. And then the voice of pointing-out-the-obvious chimed in.
For all he knew, he had none. Not real ones, anyway.
Not in Tundar, not in the Goedwigs, not anywhere.
And so he began walking back to the big-ass tree.