Chapter One- Tree Voices
The mass of trees began to sing,
suddenly and with voices that echoed with power and flowed in through the open
windows. The choruses made people leap to their feet, fall out of their chairs
and run outside. Everywhere in his village human voices rang as well,
exclaiming and even wailing until the unending note of the trees was almost
drowned out. In Shenandya the trees were the world, and the Wildenbury tree was
the top of mystic focus. And now the Wildenbury trees were singing, pouring out
their non-human voices as if sound was a river draining from a spout.
Everywhere people were stunned with amazement.
Lewolanen didn’t run outside with the rest. His breath caught upwards and tangled where he tried to suck it in. As miraculous as the sound outside was, there was nothing more involving to him at this moment than his dying father’s face.
At first when the singing began his father hadn’t moved. He hadn’t spoken in hours, no matter how Lewolanen had longed for him to change his mind. But when those trees began to sing the skin that was gray found a little color. The chest that was deflated peaked and filled with departing breath. And the eyes of his father opened wide and stared at the ceiling.
Outside people shouted, but in their house he and his father froze all movement and sound. Time stood still and the ethereal beauty of the trees’ song began to weave around his spine, holding him upright as he knelt by this father’s bed.
Long minutes went by, time in which the world of Shenandya tightened, citizens and wildlife alike growing almost reverent. The peoples’ shrieks disappeared out the window. Breaths were held as if they could cling to this miracle forever. Instinctively he knew that the people in his village had all fallen to their knees like he was. Although there was a legend that the Wildenbury trees could sing, no one had believed that it could actually come true.
At last the twining melody dwindled, closed in on itself like a bloom when the sun goes down, and disappeared. There was a slight rumble beneath his knees as if the trees shuddered into silence. The amazing occurrence was over.
Lewolenan remembered to breathe and tears clouded his eyes for a moment. Outside the window he heard the excited voices of the townspeople and the sound of their trampling feet as they ran from spot to spot finding their nearest friend to shout the news to. Inside, once he looked back to the bed on the floor, his father’s face had turned to him.
Lewolenan blinked in surprise. He leaned forward, even now hoping that his father would speak to him and say to run, go and get Lewolenan’s brother or one of his sisters and tell them the time was short. But the man’s chief trait was stubbornness after all, and the certainty that only his own opinion made any sense. With this need to win every argument his father drove everyone else away- especially once Lewolenan’s mother had died a year ago. His older brother who was a scout on the outer border rarely visited, and his two sisters were also busy, since they’d married young. The furnishings in their comfortable but small house had diminished, for Lewolenan’s father sold the fine pieces one-by-one in order to pay for his final investment before he’d gotten sick.
His father had determined that Lewolenan must become a scout like his brother, and he’d been bitterly disappointed when Lewolenan failed to pass the physical testing that was required. Lewolenan craved his father’s acceptance. He’d stuck by his father’s side when his siblings had grown too old to tolerate rudeness from another adult. Sometimes there’d been laughter between the two of them, and companionship that’d only increased during the last two weeks of his father’s illness. Even though his father could be stubborn he’d never been cruel to him. Lewolenan damped the cloth and wrung it out. His hand was gentle as he stroked the lined forehead, and patted the bristled under-chin of his parent. He didn’t say anything but he wondered if his eyes were begging for love.
Something, way down deep, changed in his father’s gaze. The trees had sung a song never heard before. And they’d had the mercy to do it while his father was still alive to comprehend it. The chest that had shrunk down to rib bones rose and fell. The man shook death away from him as if mulishness was a cure that he could apply. He cleared a rumbled throat.
“Go lad,” he growled. “Prove to me that you understand.”
Lewolenan grabbed his shirt.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Go find the source, the reason the trees sang just now.”
“But who’ll take care of you? If only you’d let me get Forlina… or Abejoran!”
“Widow woman comes in the morning. That’s all I need.”
“But what if you’re alone when you pass…”
Lewolenan choked and bowed his head as emotion clenched at him.
“Go and see, lad. Learn. The bigger song… the more of it all…”
“How will that help anything?”
“The trees’ reason for singing,” his father finished, his voice growing weak again. “It was important to them. Come back and tell me what you learned.”
The eyes closed and his father’s chest vibrated with a shudder. Lewolenan couldn’t demand any more from him. He bent down and spoke in his ear.
“I can’t leave you now, you must understand that! You might not be here when I get back…”
Closed eyes answered him. Lewolenan sat back and held in a sigh. How was it that a change of attitude could make such a difference? For the last few days he’d been certain that his father wanted to die since he’d lost his wife and his other children disappointed him just as much as Lewolenan had done. Now he was certain that his father intended to hang on, at least until he’d forced his son out the door. The smooth wooden floor under Lewolenan absorbed the shaking of his clenched fists. He couldn’t refuse his father in this condition.
“All right!” he hissed. “I’ll go in the morning when the widow woman comes!”
His father didn’t say anything, but Lewolenan noticed that the crags in his face seemed to lighten, and the stiffness in his shoulders relaxed with even breathing. His father took a few more seconds to fall into a natural sleep. The sight of this peace he’d given his parent would no doubt be his only reward.
The next morning Lewolenan crept forward, keeping to the shadow of the trees. He’d left the confines of his small village some minutes ago. His black hair was down, and a searching breeze twitched it over the skin of his neck and his face. He was wearing dark green so he could further melt into the underbrush if needed. But it was no use. This was Shenandya, and nothing got by scouts. The first indication that he’d been spotted was the crack of bent tree branch, twenty feet away. He adjusted his pack and held in a sigh. There was no use prevaricating. The scouts knew all the villagers by sight, and although people had the freedom to travel still scouts took note. He continued in his uneven path, trusting the direction that made the most sense. North and East was where all the action was bound to be, for it was there that the recent rumors had been born; rumors of a pack of evil strangers entering Shenandya and building a forbidden fortress in the deep interior. He hitched up his pack and considered trying to reach a hiding place. But the scouts knew all of the possible spots around their village. Any moment now…
A flurry of air moved by his cheek and a heavy branch above and to the side swayed with sudden movement. That fast a scout dropped from the trees and landed right in front of him. He caught a breath and tried to calm his nerves. This shouldn’t be any surprise to him. It was his brother standing there. Lewolenan caught a glimpse of their father’s stubbornness in his face.
“Lew’ll”, his brother said. “What are you doing?”
He looked down. There was no way he was going to let his brother stop him before he’d even left the area around their village. His father would be disgusted. He pondered what to say.
“Father wants to know why the trees sang. I’m going to find out.”
“Why doesn’t father go himself?”
Emotion flared and Lewolenan felt his chin tremble with it. It was ridiculous that his siblings didn’t even know of the illness that had taken over their household. No, he’d had to face the trouble all by himself. It seemed wrong, and Lewolenan felt betrayed by them even though they couldn’t have known what father wouldn’t tell them.
“Your face!” Abejoran spouted. “I can see something’s bothering you. Have you and father had a fight? Did he kick you out? Tell me the truth!”
“Father wouldn’t kick me out,” Lewolenan growled. “You don’t understand him!”
Abejoran snatched at him in reply. He was taller than Lewolenan so it was easy for him to get a hold of his backpack. He pulled it right from his shoulders.
“Give me that back!”
His brother was rummaging inside.
“I suppose this is all you’re taking with you,” he muttered. “You don’t even know how to pack right.”
“I’ve got food and clothes. I’ll be all right. I have to learn why the trees sang!”
“Then apply some of that intelligence I’ve seen in you all your life. The first people in our village to learn why the trees sang will be the scouts, when we hear it from the neighboring scouts, you know that. Father’s just agitated now. Go on back home and this evening I’ll see him. I’ll explain that as soon as we scouts learn anything, I’ll tell him about it.”
“That’s not what he wants, Abejoran! Village news sifted from scouts’ reports he can get himself when the widow woman comes in! And he doesn’t want to hear it from you, either. He wants me to go and learn more- the underneath of it all.”
“You don’t have to do whatever he says, you know, Lew’ll. You’ll be 17 next month.”
“Can I have my pack now?”
“No. Why is father sending you out on some sort of border quest? Now while all of Shenandya’s in shock? It’s madness.”
“It’s my choice to go, and it isn’t a border quest! I’m not playing games!”
“Well you’re not going anywhere either. We scouts were given orders. I may not be able to tell you exactly why the trees sang, but we did hear this. A battle is due to happen, and may have already begun up North.”
“Yes, as rumored by captured criminals in all four neighboring territories.”
“You mean that evil stranger up there is going to war; against Shenandyan scouts? He doesn’t stand a chance!”
“Nevertheless war is dangerous. We’re keeping our villagers home and safe until the battle is over. That way our lives won’t be complicated by innocent villagers being attacked by retreating marauders. And it’s no good experience for a lad of sixteen to wander into an enemy’s campfire while his vision is clouded by legends and tree-songs.”
“Turn around, Lew’ll.”
There it was; the voice of command that fell so easily from his brother’s lips. After all, they’d heard that tone all their lives from the man was an expert at creating it. It was this confidence and this natural authority that’d made it easy for Abejoran to be chosen as a scout- but Lewolenan had spent some time living with stubbornness too. He narrowed his eyes and nodded.
“You go first,” he replied, clenching his fists. “I don’t want it to look like you’re escorting me home like a child lost in the woods.”
His brother smiled at his capitulation.
“Isn’t that what you are?” he teased, but he led the way.
Lewolenan let him take five steps in the given direction and then he turned. Unfettered by his pack he ought to be able to run faster.
“Hey!” his brother called out a few seconds later.
Lewolenan bolted and scrambled through the underbrush to hit the nearest path and then on to meet the road. He didn’t intend to stay on the road but it was wide open and enabled him to put on speed. His brother wasn’t far behind but Lewolenan had always been a very fast runner. He was smaller than Abejoran too, and also more desperate. Raising his shoulders high to breathe better he clamped his bent elbows to his side and leaned forward and pelted out his rage. Behind him his brother charged, bellowed at him, and after a long time panted.
“Lew’ll come back!” he gasped, but by this time Lewolenan was feeling the spurt of youthful energy, inexorable in its yearning and it’s longing for more. Fey, he left everything he knew in the dusty pine needle road under his feet.
His family had dissolved away along with the furniture in the shell of a house he lived in.
Lewolenan knew all about gentle smiles that had gone forever- in the loss of his mother. He’d seen the heat of failure in the gaze of his father when directed towards himself. Soon his father would be gone along with his childhood.
What had it all stood for? Why indeed would the trees sing, when there was just more night watches and work to sift the sunshine out of the rain? Glancing back he saw that his brother had given up and disappeared behind a bend in the road. He grasped his knees and stopped running, choking in tears out loud. And then, leaving the road and angling north, he disappeared into the trees.
Chapter Two- Empty House
Abejoran knocked again. Why didn’t the old man answer? He must be home. His father rarely went out, come to think of it, Abejoran hadn’t seen him in the village streets at all for some time now. Lewolenan did all the business both in market and with the other villagers. Abejoran frowned as he pondered the front door.
He loved his father and could concede to being a little like him, but blast it! No one should feel free to treat him as his parent had done. Insisting that he knew best what Abejoran should do with his earnings, his free time and even what girl he should choose to go along with. Abejoran was 25-years-old and responsible. And if he hadn’t have stood strong and shown those younger than him that it could be done, then his siblings would’ve all had to allow their father to run their lives as well.
Perhaps he’d taken it too far. His sisters were off and married to the fellows of their choice. And Lewolenan seemed bent on defying everyone but their father. Abejoran couldn’t leave now no matter how much his father ignored his knock. For his young brother’s sake he had to fight with the old man again, even for the right to offer opinions about family. He took a deep breath and knocked once more, a little louder this time.
The deep silence in the house finally began to disturb him. Was there something wrong inside? Pushing away thoughts of attack or accident he grabbed the door handle and entered. He was unsettled by the state of the house, how it’d changed since he’d last been inside it. Surely it’d only been a month or two and yet here was the place with just a few scraps of furniture and the windows drawn against the morning sun. The warm side tables and benches that had so pleased his mother were gone!
Silence reigned over all. Truly it was as if a thief had come. Except the surfaces that remained were dusted and the floor was clean. He bit his lip and went back to the bedrooms. Glancing inside as he passed he noticed that the room that used to belong to his sisters was empty as well, even their beds were gone. The other bedroom that he used to share with his brother looked much the same at least. His old bed was gone, but Lewolenan still had a bed and his desk. The coverlet had been tossed against the pillow and his brother had kept the room tidy.
“Father?” Abejoran called, entering the hallway. No answer. He arrived at his father’s bedroom door, which was open a crack. He tapped on it. “Father,” he repeated. After a few seconds he swallowed and stepped inside the room.
His heart began to pound in true shock. The small table that used to be in the kitchen had been moved by the bed and it was full of items, school books and a lantern, a washing bowl and pitcher, a glass of juice and of water, and a bowl that was covered and holding clear broth. The life in the rest of the house had vanished, and what was left of care and relationship had been moved in here.
“Father,” Abejoran whispered to the unmoving form on the bed. Had the man died suddenly? There’d been a fierce sickness that had swept through the village two-weeks ago, but Forlina had told him that everyone in the family was fine. He hated himself as he stepped forward. His sister had obviously not bothered to enter the house. He should’ve come to see for himself. What had Lewolenan been dealing with? And now it looked to be too late….
Wait- drawing closer and staring at his father he thought he saw a breath rise and fall. His own heart began beating faster than ever as he arrived at the bedside and put his strong hand on his father’s bony chest. He had to sit down in relief when he felt the breathing; weak heartbeat steady and present. It wasn’t too late, but it wasn’t good either. He expelled a sigh and turned. In seconds he was out on the village streets, striding with purpose. Soon he’d have the doctor and Forlina in the house and taken to task on the way. He lifted his hand as he passed the scout station and made a signal. One of the scouts would come and find him to see what was wrong. It was high time this situation was dealt with.
It was over an hour before his father woke up. Abejoran had spent much of that time pacing in impatience, but it was his turn at his father’s bedside. The doctor wasn’t as encouraging as he would’ve liked. The fever had been conquered, it seemed, but his father was very weak. Both his sisters had agreed to sit in shifts with him until their father either strengthened or gave up the fight. Meanwhile Lewolenan was still gone, even though the morning was passing and it would soon be lunchtime. He sighed again and threw himself into the chair. The forceful movement brought a deeper breath into the sick man’s chest. His father’s eyes fluttered and opened. For a second Abejoran saw surprise registered as the man recognized him, and then pleasure. His father was happy to see him. Then the man grimaced and turned his head.
“So finally you come,” he whispered.
“I would’ve come sooner, had I known you were sick,” Abejoran snapped.
His father glared.
“I wouldn’t let Lewolenan tell you. I’ll not have you moan over me sick if you don’t care to visit when I’m strong.”
“And were you planning on remaining stubborn till you died?” Abejoran snapped back. “I don’t think I deserve such punishment.”
“If I were stronger I’d tell you exactly what you deserved,” his father said, but his voice was weak again. Abejoran was going to get angry, but then he saw something that he’d never noticed before. There was a small light of sarcastic humor in his father’s eyes. He shook his head and responded to it.
“Relax, old man, and get better,” he commanded.
“Not until you tell me why you came.”
“I came to find out what’s going on. Why did you feel the need to send Lew’ll off on some sort of quest all by himself? Are you trying to get him lost or killed?”
The eyes flew open.
“Don’t discount your brother. He may be young but he’s smart enough to take care of himself on a simple journey. After all, he’s been taking care of me.”
“Yes, I can see that. ‘All by himself’ seems to have become what he’s used to.”
“Bah, don’t waste time fussing!”
“Don’t you care that he might be in danger?” Abejoran demanded.
“What danger? The boy’s just off to discover something.”
“Father, haven’t you heard the rumors of what’s been going on in Shenandya? There’s been strangers building a fortress up north? Lew’ll didn’t stay long enough to discover this but the most recent report came in an hour ago. There’s been a large battle fought, and many of the criminals and mercenaries involved scattered down this way once it was over; defeated and desperate. All villages have been told to keep their members inside the borders of their communities while it’s so unsafe!”
His father stared at him, his eyes getting larger and larger. Abejoran saw what pale color there had been in the face recede, and he regretted his intensity.
“Lewolenan! Why didn’t he tell me?” the man whispered.
“Shh, I’m sorry I said anything,” Abejoran said, pressing his father’s shoulders back into bed.
“No, don’t try to get up!”
“You go find him, you’re a scout!” his father gasped. “Hurry before something happens to him! What are you doing sitting here?”
“Don’t worry. I’ve sent word through the scout network. They’re tracking him and it shouldn’t take long.”
“Do you think that’s going to comfort me?” his father glared, storm clouds circling in his eyes. Abejoran held in a smile. No matter how dire the situation was, it was good to see his father energetic enough to get angry.
Chapter Three- Journey To Reason
Although Lewolenan hadn’t been strong enough to pass the entrance test for the scouts, he hadn’t failed in speed or dexterity. In fact, although he hadn’t told his father this, the scout master had told him he was a natural climber and was good at the silent hours. This skill had to do with disappearing into the trees, melting into their depths and being invisible. It seemed that observing life quietly from afar was another natural-born ability that Lewolenan had.
‘Go home and build your strength, lad,’ the man had said. ‘When you can lift a pretty maiden to full extension above your head I’ll reconsider you.’
The man laughed, for indeed several pretty village maidens had been standing nearby that day, watching the testing.
Lewolenan never had the chance to work on building his strength. His father fell sick a week later, along with many of the other villagers. It had been a grievous time, for six people in the village died within ten days. It was believed that outsiders to Shenandya brought the sickness. Now it seemed that outsiders were causing trouble again. Lewolenan wondered about the wide world, and why problems had to push in even during such a hard time as he’d been having. But then he remembered that the miracle of the trees singing yesterday evening and wondered more.
His musings were interrupted. Brackish sound approached and Lewolenan knew these loud and discontent voices didn’t come from scouts. He was deep in the trees now, picking through ankle high underbrush, but he’d managed to avoid any more scouts and had reached the zone in between Shenandyan territories.
At these discordant voices he ducked back, found a likely tree, and leaped to find his way up into it. He had to slink high to where the tree trunk swayed to disappear into the branches. But the next moment his eyes widened. From this height he could see them, a large group of men stomping with heavy boots and glaring straight ahead with coldness in their eyes. They didn’t look like any Shenandyan he’d ever seen. Their style of clothing was different, the accent of their voices was different, and certainly their obvious disrespect for their environment wasn’t anything like Shenandyans. In fact, one of the men was hacking away at the underbrush around him with a long knife, be it gentle fern or the infant shoot of a larger tree. The fellow was short and going bald on one side. Or perhaps some of his bushy hair had been pulled out. He looked agitated, ripping away at the plant life around him like his fingers were itching to do violence.
Lewolenan’s heart began to pound. The sunset was almost upon them. At least thirty selfish and weapon-bearing men passed underneath his hiding place. Here between the territories no scout patrolled and by the time they reached the area of his home the villages were smaller and had less scouts to patrol them. His own scouts would be outnumbered.
He paused as the last of the straggling force drifted by him. What should he do? But he shook his head. He had no doubt that the scouts of his village would discern these fellows before they reached the village itself, but even so there would be little the scouts could do to stop them. At least two villages would need to bind together, and some strong farmers and other skilled fighters would need to stand also to insure that these men felt there was no point in causing trouble and left Shenandya safe behind them.
Almost an hour later Lewolenan was scratched, sore from crouching and exhausted, but at least he’d accomplished getting in front of the fellows without being seen. Dismay had grown in him as he’d traveled, for he saw that the men seemed to know right where to go. In fact one of them had pulled out a rolled parchment several times and directed them. He must have a map of the territories. Lewolenan narrowed his eyes and tried to see better inside the group.
Having a Shenandyan map wouldn’t do much good to an outsider. Forests had landmarks for those who dwelt in them, who’d lived their whole lives in the green filtered light. Paths and roads curved and undulated giving the trees room. There weren’t any printed signs to go by. Lewolenan couldn’t believe it but the obvious must be true. They must have a born Shenandyan to decipher the map for them. One of the forest’s own was betraying his people and leading these strangers instead. It seemed impossible.
He climbed a tree and rested for a moment, watching as the men began to near his hiding place. It occurred to him that since these fellows were making such an obvious effort to avoid any scout’s attention that perhaps he didn’t need to worry about it. Perhaps this problem would solve itself. But no, that wasn’t any guarantee. It was several days’ journey until Shenandya’s outer border was reached. None of the men was carrying a very large pack on their backs. If they ran out of the supplies needed to feed 30 men several meals a day what would they do? The obvious answer would be for them to find a small village and raid it.
He shook his head as the fellows drew close, passing now right under his tree. He froze into stillness and stared. From his vantage point he could see them clearly, face after grimacing face. These men looked like they’d been defeated and were angry about it, like a bear that’s been wounded and had slunk off. After a few moments his world began to change. There was nothing he recognized on those faces. No humanity of soul for him to sympathize with. Even his father at his most stubborn didn’t seem as coldly empty as this. Down deep he always knew that his father loved his children and never intended any real harm towards any of them. But these fellows were different. One slip and they’d spot him. In their clutches he had no doubt that he’d be in great danger. He vibrated the limb but held off making any noise. Now he was more certain than ever that he couldn’t allow them to reach a village unwarned.
There was one rule about what happened if a group of strangers managed to sneak past the border of Shenandya. The strangers were only allowed to progress inside until the scouts collected enough members to surround them. These men should be far outnumbered so they saw the hopelessness of ever bothering to enter Shenandya again. Lewolenan let the last man pass beneath him, his heart pounding. He knew what to do now. These men were avoiding the villages and their scouts with care. But Lewolenan would go find the nearest one. Once the scouts had been informed they’d track these fellows down. They’d organize themselves and surround them. He knew where the closest village was, for he’d had a friend when he was a young teenager that came from there. He climbed down from his tree and set off, westerly and to the side of the route the men were taking.
He took a chance and scurried down the main path, for that was faster and it made less noise than rustling through the underbrush. When he heard pounding footsteps behind him he threw a glance behind and then tried to run too- but a larger form than his tackled him, and a man more vicious than he’d ever encountered wrenched him to lie on his back and then backhanded him.
“Who are you then?” the fellow grunted, grabbing at his face. “I saw you watching us up in the trees! Trying to warn your precious scouts, aren’t you?”
Lewolenan remembered something his brother had told him back when he’d begun his scout training.
‘Swinging fists and kicking feet are the most effective weapon, Lew’ll,” he’d said, “but a scout learns to fight with whatever he can grab,’ he’d said.
So now his grasping hands felt on the ground and gathered up dirt and pine needle tar, and twisting up he rammed the mess into the fellow’s eyes, swiping it sideways to smear. And being smaller and more agile he slithered backwards and out from under, bending like a snake and getting his feet under him.
“Oh no you don’t!” the fellow barked, preventing Lewolenan from leaving by gripping his forearm.
The man was a slasher, and his blade came down and sunk into Lewolenan’s side.
Lewolenan twisted free, but the man knocked him down by snagging his ankle as he tried to leap away.
“Help!” Lewolenan screeched, hoping to get a scout’s attention anyway he could. His searching fingers found a heavy stick but his swing wasn’t hard enough to injure. The next second he regretted picking it up for the fellow took it from him and swung it harder, hitting him in the side of his shoulder and then again at his neck and jaw. Lewolenan fell to the ground.
He recognized his assailant as being that strange man he’d seen from the treetop, the one with only half a head of bushy hair. The fellow’s upper lip was stuck up on one of his yellow teeth, like a snarling dog Lewolenan had seen once.
“You’re just a boy!” the man hooted.
Lewolenan lifted his arm to protect himself as the man raised the club.
“Help me, somebody!” he screeched again.
The situation was clear to them both. He and this awful man, they were both trying to protect their sides. His attacker was trying to keep knowledge of his group hidden from the scouts, and Lewolenan was trying to keep knowledge of the nearby villages away from these villains. In a way he and this stranger, they were both advance scouts. Lewolenan had only one weapon, his screaming voice, and it would soon be silenced. For the fellow struck his arm with the heavy wood so hard that Lewolenan heard the bone crack.
“Ah-Oww!” he yelped, pain making the noise piercing.
“I’ll kill you!” the man shouted in reply.
Looking up Lewolenan knew real terror. There was an expression in the cold eyes now, and it was the anticipation of murder.
“Help!” he gasped out one last time, before the man got Lewolenan’s hands out of the way and held him steady. He lifted his blade high.
At the last moment help arrived. So silent it surprised them both a man slithered from the trees and dropped in the path right beside them. Lewolenan threw a desperate glance to meet the newcomer’s. And remembering to fight he twisted one last time to the side and felt the blade slice his arm on its way to strike the earthen path.
Scouts. Outnumbered two to one like the ones in his village would be if this band of strangers took them by surprise the fight would be taxing- but in one on one combat they were almost invincible. To his credit the man on the ground kept his head. The scout rammed into his shoulder knocking him off balance. Lewolenan tried to get out of the way when the villain leapt to his feet.
The scout was an older man, wearing the one-sleeved off-shoulder tunic of the scouts and having their bearing but in other ways unique. His hair was cut short for one thing, and he didn’t have the usual belt of weapons and equipment that most scouts wore.
The scout was unarmed but his hands and feet were enough to defeat this man. Lewolenan scooted back to lean against a tree while he watched, his unwounded hand clutching the blooded slash on his other arm. The upper arm had been cut and the lower part was throbbing in waves, as Lewolenan thought, probably broken.
The bushy-haired man slashed. The scout avoided it with ease. The fellow switched sides and swung the club. But the scout struck twice, first a flashing kick that connected with a splintering sound right into the fellow’s knee, and then with an uppercut that hit him with so much force that the bushy-haired villain flew backwards. He wretch hit the ground uncomfortably close to Lewolenan, so he moved his leg out of the way. The scout jumped on his prisoner, who was now groaning, and wrenched him over onto his stomach. He grabbed the man’s hands and pulled them behind his back.
“Give me your belt, lad,” the scout gasped.
Lewolenan pulled at his belt with his good hand, sliding it out of his waistband. The scout took it and trussed his prisoner and when he finished he wiped a line of sweat off his upper lip with the back of his hand. He sighed and looked up.
“So you caught your first marauder, eh, lad?” he asked.
“I didn’t catch him,” Lewolenan grimaced. He was shaking and a little dizzy and he didn’t like that his voice cracked.
“Well don’t worry. There’s a few of these wretches to be found in these woods, but we’ll soon have them weeded out.”
Lewolenan scrambled to his knees, holding his arm again.
“But this man isn’t the only one!”
The man’s eyes narrowed and he waited for Lewolenan to go on.
“I saw more of these men, not far away over there! They were traversing the area between the territories and they seemed to have a map! I was coming to try to find some scouts and warn them!”
“And this fellow spotted you, eh?”
“I… tried to be quiet, but…”
“Don’t blame yourself, lad. These are full-grown men, trained in battle.”
“How many did you see? Five or six?”
“No, a lot more than that! There were thirty at least!”
The man’s eyebrows raised and he looked skeptical.
“A little can seem like a lot when you’re frightened,” he pointed out. “You were almost murdered just now. It’s understandable if you’re a bit shaken.”
“There were thirty of them, I’m telling you!” Lewolenan insisted. “And they were headed south!”
“I’ve no doubt you saw something,” the man conceded. “But you’ve told me now. I’ll tell the other scouts and we’ll fan out. All will be well.”
Lewolenan ground his teeth. It was obvious the man didn’t believe him.
“This isn’t a warning you should ignore,” he growled. “What if I’m right? South of here the villages are smaller. My village is small!”
The scout eased his back from holding down the culprit and eyed Lewonlenan up and down.
“Look, lad,” he said. “Why don’t you just calm down? My village isn’t far. Come with me while I turn in this weasel and you can have that wound on your arm looked at.”
Lewolenan fumed, but he got up as best as he could when the older scout wrestled the bushy-haired villain to his feet. The scout nodded at the path indicating that they were heading back to his village and Lewolenan looked down, seemingly obedient. There was stickiness under his fingers but that slashing pain was nothing compared to the throbbing waves of his broken arm. His side hurt too, and he felt white and shaky.
When he looked up to go to the village the animal that’d tried to murder him was glancing back at him with a smirk as he limped along in the scout’s grasp. The wretch knew that the scout didn’t believe him but he didn’t intend to say anything about it. Lewolenan glared at him in reply as they all three started walking. He straightened his spine and refused to give into weakness. That scout that’d saved him didn’t understand. He was a gruff older man, and he reminded him of his father; stubborn, certain of his own way. Well, Lewolenan had been through enough of that in the past few weeks. His father had nearly died without ever saying goodbye to his other children. And just like this older scout choosing to lessen Lewolenan’s story, there were times when stubborn men could be wrong.
The path was twisting here and it wove in between three massive stands of Wildenbury trees. Lewolenan looked up through their crooked branches and noted the scout glancing back at him to make certain he was coming along like he’d been ordered; he relaxed when he saw Lewolenan walking behind as he should. A twisted root rose out of the path and Lewolenan stumbled over it. He let go of his injured arm and grabbed onto the nearest Wildenbury tree to steady himself. Then he froze in his tracks and stared at the bark.
The Wildenbury trees had legends sung about them. And one legend was that sometimes if the person was worthy the trees would communicate with the touch of a human hand. Some fortunate people could feel the tree’s vibrations, but the gift was rare. Of course like all young people in Shenandya Lewolenan had tried many times to feel the tree’s story under his skin. He lifted his hand now and saw that he’d left a light red stain of his blood on the tree bark. Perhaps the tree had felt the blood and shared with him out of sympathy. He put his hand back against the bark reveling in his newfound gift and closed his eyes, suddenly remembering his earlier mission.
“Why?” he whispered to the tree in his mind, absorbing the vibration of the tree’s sap and its story as it was being told to him. “Why did you sing?”
Those that could feel the vibrations of the trees were honored in Shenandya. They were called Sensors. Lewolenan didn’t know all the answers, and he didn’t know why the trees had sung the day before. But he understood them now like never before; that choices came along the current of life, and the flow had to do with the life that mattered around you. The Wildenbury trees were connected under the ground, bound together like roots holding hands. Together they sought nourishment and companionship, and struggled through drought and blight. He opened his eyes in wonder. For the rest of his life the trees would vibrate for him. And for this moment he allowed what they had to teach him.
He didn’t belong here in this distant village following a scout that’d saved his life but would have to learn he told the truth the hard way. He belonged back home, no matter that the sun had set and the first stars were appearing in the sky. He jerked and then fell back into the clutch of the trees, hearing the voice of the man that’d been leading him.
The Wildenbury trees hid him when the man approached but Lewolenan’s heart started knocking against his chest in surprise. The scout was talking to someone, and he recognized the other person’s voice. How could that be?
“Blast!” the older man said. “He was right behind me a moment ago!”
“But you say he was wounded?” the other person’s voice demanded, and Lewolenan leaned forward to make certain. As he saw who’d joined that other scout relief poured through him so that he couldn’t move for a moment. It was his brother, and behind him on the path came scout after scout, many of the ones from his own village and the villages beside. “As you can see,” his brother added, “we scouts have banded together to find my little brother. And I don’t intend to lose him now.”
Lewolenan encircled the Wildenbury tree with a hug, feeling its vibrations course up and down his chest and his good arm. All these added scouts, pouring out of the villages just to find him, it was enough. They could face the enemy and march them out of Shenandya, into the cold treeless world where they belonged. He got up and stumbled again, for now he felt dizzier than ever. The shirt at his side was wet with his blood. His arm felt swollen and sore.
“There he is!” Abejoran cried, running up to him. He caught him as he fell. “Lew’ll, hold on!” he cried. “Father’s revived, roaring for you and worrying, you scamp!” he cried. “He’s called in every favor he ever had left! Did you know the leader of our village is his boyhood best friend? Father had been disputing with him, but the man softened when Father begged for his help and fell out of his sickbed! Father even said he was sorry to our sisters and their husbands! Our leader put out a scout’s call, asking for all scouts in the area to assist! He got us out here to find you!” a few seconds went by. “Lew’ll!” he added, now sounding frightened and pressing on his brother’s wounds. “Say something to let me know you’re all right!”
Lewolenan gathered his strength and spoke.
“There are a lot of them, Abejoran,” he said, and the men nearby stood as quiet as only scouts can to hear his warning. “It’s those bandits you told me about. They’re headed south, and they have a map and a Shenandyan traitor to lead the way between territories so scouts won’t spot them. All you have to do is follow their likely course. Please believe me!”
“You heard him!” Abejoran cried. “He says there’s a whole lot more of these marauders headed south! Gather your scouts and deal with them, but first, point the way to your village so I can take my brother to a doctor!”
There it was. That voice of command in his brother’s voice. Authority radiated from him and it had its effect. Every scout standing nearby leapt into action but Lewolenan only smiled. He was a Sensor now. He understood. If he recovered he knew that one day he could become a scout if he wanted to, or do anything else that seemed right to him. Like the trees had told him there was no need to rush. He just had to live his life, and love who he was supposed to love, holding tight to the roots that had formed him.
“Come on, Lew’ll,” his brother said, rising from the ground and slinging Lewolenan’s good arm over his shoulder. He yanked Lewolenan to his side, clenching hold on his side-wound to stem the bleeding as he helped him walk. “Don’t you worry,” he told him as they staggered along. “Father’s at home waiting for you and everything’s going to be all right now.”
“Here, I’ll show you the way,” the gruff older scout said. “All you others take heed and obey this man. Get as many scouts as you need from the neighboring villages! Go clean those villains out of Shenandyan territory!”
The band of scouts, in a number that seemed to blur as Lewolenan watched them run by, formed into an ordered line and disappeared into the near darkness. The gruff older scout that’d saved his life leaned close.
“You sure have a way of getting things done, lad,” the man commented. “I admit I’m interested in you. If you lived in my village I’d make sure you got trained.”
Lewolenan lifted his head in surprise and gruff man smiled at him.
“You’ve been thinking of me a scout and I was one, once,” the man told him. “My name is Firmehoden, and I’m the leader of this village now. I heard the rumors of bandits roaming after the battle up north and I was feeling restless and the need to patrol the woods around my village myself. I heard a boy’s voice calling for help and I came. I’m glad I still had the skill to save your life!”
Lewolenan smiled back though his head seemed to hang down from his shoulders and he had to lift it.
“Thanks for saving my life, although I’m not sure I’m going to live long,” he managed.
“Don’t worry,” Firmehoden added; his voice grim. “You’re weak from blood loss, but I’ve seen worse! You’re young and stronger than I gave you credit for. You’re going to pull through!”
He nodded at Abejoran and they went on down the path towards the man’s village. Lewolenan looked up to see the stars through the twisted branches of the Wildenbury trees. Their song had saved his father’s life. His parent had even learned to apologize to his boyhood friend and ask for help. His brother Abejoran was shaking with concern for him as he helped him along, for Lewolenan could sense him trembling just like he’d felt the Wildenbury trees. His family had come back together and those villains were going to be dealt with before they reached his village- and Lewolenan had found out what he was made of. As he stumbled in pain he thought about the trees. No matter what happened there was more to come and loved ones to commune with. He felt ready to sing like they’d done.